DETROIT – The Detroit Red Wings got much younger this year, rebuilding with rookies and prospects pushed onto the ice.
For much of the lockout-delayed season, it didn’t look good for them.
The storied franchise used to chase Stanley Cup titles with key players in their late 30s and 40s such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull and Larry Murphy.
As the Chicago Blackhawks are now finding out, the Red Wings are much better than they were during the regular season thanks to an improved cast of inexperienced players.
“We’ve had great growth from within, I think the most since I’ve been in the National Hockey League for sure,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Sunday. “That may be because we have a different type of team. We got a whole bunch of kids, so we have a chance for growth.”
Red Wings rookie Brendan Smith scored the winning goal Saturday in Detroit’s 4-1 win at Chicago that tied the series 1-1. The top-seeded Blackhawks won the opener by the same 4-1 score.
“We knew they were going to come back and play much better than they did in Game 1,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said. “Obviously, we didn’t quite match the effort.”
When the puck drops Monday night in Detroit for Game 3, Toews hopes his team is ready to bounce back.
“There’s no time to waste in this series,” Toews said. “We know going into their building it’s even more difficult.”
It will be even more challenging for Chicago if Toews can’t produce as he did in the 48-game regular season.
Toews had 23 goals, tying Patrick Kane for the team lead and trailing just four players in the league. However, he is struggling to score for a third straight post-season.
Toews is in an eight-game playoff slump that dates to last year. He has just three goals combined in three postseasons since scoring seven goals to help Chicago win the Cup in 2010. He had seven goals the previous post-season—his first—when Detroit eliminated the Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals.
Henrik Zetterberg had a lot to do with holding Toews without a point in Game 2, an accomplishment that didn’t surprise Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard.
“Most nights, he’s the best player on the ice,” Howard said. “No different from (Saturday), the way he was all over Toews the whole game, shutting him down. We’re going to need that for the whole series.”
The Red Wings would also benefit if their inexperienced players figure out a way to avoid fading into the background.
Before Smith’s go-ahead goal on Saturday, first-year player Damien Brunner and rookie Gustav Nyquist also scored winning goals this post-season—in overtime against Anaheim. Teammate Joakim Andersson ranks among rookie scoring leaders.
The 27-year-old Brunner, too old to be a candidate for the Calder Trophy given to the rookie of the year, has followed up a 26-point regular season with four goals in the playoffs to match Johan Franzen for the team lead. He also has three assists.
Calder finalist Brandon Saad has only one assist in seven post-season games for the Blackhawks. The 20-year-old forward had 27 points during the regular season.
Brunner has insisted it doesn’t bother him to be out of the running for the Calder, and sounded even more thankful on Sunday that he waited to make the jump from the Swiss League.
The 5-foot-11, 184-pound forward was banged around on the ice quite a bit and had growing pains off it, dealing with a lot of travel after his longest trip last year was a 2 1/2-hour bus ride.
“You kind of think it’s not that big of a deal when you come over, but after a couple trips and the hours you lose, especially when you come back home, it’s tough,” Brunner said. “It’s really tough.”
While Babcock’s job behind the bench was tougher this year than it had been the past seven seasons with veteran-filled rosters, he relished the opportunity to lead the young Red Wings.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had coaching in a couple years, by far, just because we have a real enthusiastic group,” Babcock said. “At the start of the year, we weren’t a good team. We all understood that, but we buckled down and we got better. It’s been fun for us. If you would have asked me before the playoffs, I would’ve told you the same thing. Then suddenly you have a little success in the playoffs—and it’s more fun.”
Follow Larry Lage on Twitter: http://twitter.com/larrylage