DETROIT – The defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings are going from a playoff-tested, big and feisty opponent to a team in the playoffs for the first time since 2002 that relies on speed and skill.
The Red Wings expect the Chicago Blackhawks to test them in the Western Conference finals just as much as Anaheim did in the second round.
That’s saying a lot because the Ducks pushed Detroit to a closely contested Game 7 Thursday night in a series its coach, Mike Babcock, said was the best series he’s been in and some players insisted was one of the toughest of their careers.
“I think this is gonna be a tough one, too,” Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said on a conference call.
The Original Six franchises will meet Sunday afternoon in Game 1, matching up in the playoffs for the first time since 1995 and the 15th time overall.
“I think it’s good for hockey and it’s fantastic for us that we get to play Chicago,” Babcock said in a telephone interview Friday. “We played them in the Winter Classic, and now we’re among the four teams still playing hockey while 26 teams are sitting at home.”
Second-seeded Detroit became the first team to simply advance in the playoffs after hoisting the Cup since 2002 when it swept Columbus in the opening round, then was on the brink of elimination against the 2007 champion Ducks.
The fourth-seeded Blackhawks eliminated Calgary and Vancouver in Game 6s, and have been idle since beating the Canucks on Monday.
“We’re going to have respect for them because they’ve earned being in the conference finals after beating teams with experience,” Lidstrom said.
Chicago is in the conference finals for the first time since 1995, when it lost to the Red Wings.
“It’s a special matchup,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “You look back over the years, where the Blackhawks came from in a short amount of time, where we are at today, it’s a great challenge, a fun opportunity for everybody.
“There is a lot of history, animosity, passion involving both organizations and here we are playing for something very important. It’s got a lot of meaning, I’m sure the game will reflect that in the crowds and the stands.”
Fans in both cities, and those interested elsewhere, should see exciting hockey that starts Sunday afternoon and could stretch into June.
Chicago is led by young forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, its top draft picks in 2006 and 2007, 28-year-old forward Martin Havlat, defenceman Brian Campbell and 36-year-old goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.
The Red Wings lean on forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, rely on their depth when stars such as Pavel Datsyuk go cold, Lidstrom and veteran goalie Chris Osgood.
Detroit is hoping to win the Stanley Cup for the fifth time in 12 seasons and to lift the spirits of an economically depressed area.
“I think it’s good for the city and the state really if we keep winning,” Babcock said. “Auto dealerships are closing and a lot of things are going bad, but we’re doing something good that hopefully makes people feel a little better.”
AP Sports Writer Rick Gano in Chicago contributed to this report.