DETROIT – With one more victory, the bruised and battered Detroit Red Wings will be Stanley Cup champions for a second year in a row.
It could come exactly as it did a year ago, in Game 6 of the final at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, although Wings forward Dan Cleary warned it is no lock despite Detroit’s total domination of Game 5 – a 5-0 victory at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday night.
“When you close out a team it’s not easy,” Cleary said Sunday. “You’re taking away someone’s dreams, what they live for, and it’s not an easy thing to do.
“It’s all the will and determination and how badly you want it.”
Detroit leads the best-of-seven final 3-2 going into Game 6 on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
For the Red Wings to be in that position is remarkable, given the injuries to key players they have endured since their playoff run began on April 16.
They have been without defenceman Andreas Lilja with a concussion for the entire post-season.
And along the way they went without defenceman Brian Rafalski for five games with an upper body injury in the second round against Anaheim, centre Kris Draper for 15 games in two stretches, defenceman Jonathan Ericsson for Game 7 of the Western Conference final against Chicago after an appendectomy, and captain Nik LIdstrom for the final two games against the Blackhawks with a suspected groin injury.
Perhaps worst of all was losing two-way forward and Hart Trophy candidate Pavel Datsyuk for the final three games against Chicago and the first four games of the final with a foot injury.
Datsyuk’s return for Game 5, in which he had two assists and was plus-2, seemed to make the Red Wings complete – to restore the thorough, two-way game they have used to win four Stanley Cups and remain a contender season after season for the last dozen years.
Coach Mike Babcock said that “most teams wouldn’t be playing” if they lost the calibre of players Detroit has had go down.
He praised his team after Game 5 for buying time for the injured stars to come back by winning enough games to get them into the final and then splitting the first four games – a pair of 3-1 wins at home followed by two 4-2 losses in Pittsburgh.
“If you look at teams in the league that can’t sustain, or win night after night, it’s usually because they don’t have enough players to do it,” Babcock said. “You’re too easy to be checked, too easy to be injured and too easy to be shut down.
“In the (salary) cap world, I’m a big believer in drafting and (head scout) Jim Nill and his people are important, but (coach) Curt Fraser on our farm team is so important because of the development of players. If we don’t have guys coming in prepared, like (Justin) Abdelkader, (Darren) Helm, Ericsson and (Ville) Leino were, you can’t win.”
The rookie Abdelkader scored in each of the Wings’ home victories to open the final, including Game 2 when Detroit was outplayed and should have given Pittsburgh at least a split. Helm has emerged as a solid third-line centre.
Without their contributions, Babcock said “we’re not playing (now).”
The entire team was given a much-needed day off the ice on Sunday and will skate on Monday before travelling to Pittsburgh.
Datsyuk’s foot is clearly not fully healed, but the gifted forward who had 97 points in the regular season played within his means and was effective playing on the wing on the top line with Cleary and Henrik Zetterberg.
In the first period, he took a headman pass from Zetterberg and slipped a pass to Cleary on the right side for the game’s opening goal.
“It was a huge boost when everyone found out that Pavel was going to play,” said Draper. “We’re getting back the best two-way player in the game.
“The play he made to Cleary was simple, but that’s what Pav does. The next thing you know, it’s in the back of the net. And Pav started getting more confidence and you could see our team was too. We needed that boost after what went on in Pittsburgh and we responded with a win.”
Along with Datsyk’s return, Babcock and his coaches made adjustments to how they bring the puck out of their zone to spare their defencemen, particularly Lidstrom, from the heavy-hitting forecheck of Penguins forwards like Matt Cooke and Chris Kunitz.
And after Valtteri Filppula scored 1:44 into the second frame for a 2-0 lead, they checked Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to distraction.
They expect the Penguins to answer back in Game 6, which Draper said will “make for another great game.”
The Game 5 blowout aside, the series has been first-rate entertainment.
And Penguins coach Dan Bylsma promised that for Game 6, his team will “lay it on the line” to try a force a Game 7 on Friday night in Detroit.