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Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronwall and Stuart are standouts on Red Wings defence

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

DETROIT - Trying to beat a hockey team with four defencemen as good as Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Brad Stuart is like trying to break a pane of glass with a feather.

The Detroit Red Wings' fab four are fast on skates and between the ears, and they rarely make mistakes. No wonder the Pittsburgh Penguins were shut out in the first two games of the NHL's championship series.

Sidney Crosby and Co. will try to storm the Lidstrom-Rafalski and Kronwall-Stuart barricades again Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET), and it'll be curtains for the Penguins if they can't break through.

The 38-year-old Lidstrom will earn his fourth Stanley Cup ring with the Wings and become the first European player to captain a team to the title if they win two more games. The six-foot-one Swede has won the Norris Trophy five times - soon in all likelihood to be six times - and he skates with the five-foot-10 Rafalski as if they've been paired for years.

That was exactly what Detroit GM Ken Holland envisioned when he targeted signing Rafalski once the 34-year-old American became an unrestricted free agent last summer after helping New Jersey win two titles.

"They're both great skaters and passers and read the game so well," says assistant coach Paul MacLean, who oversees the defence. "They're very intelligent players."

Lidstrom played a team-high 25 minutes 51 seconds in Detroit's 3-0 win in Game 2 on Monday night. Second-highest ice time for the Wings was Rafalski's 24:54.

"We're similar players - the way we move the puck, how we get open for each other and how we handle odd-man rushes," says Lidstrom, who was selected by The Hockey News as the best European ever to lace 'em up in the big league. "He's easy to play with.

"He's always available for a pass. It's been a perfect fit to play with Brian."

Neither are punishing checkers, but all their attributes fit the speedy game that NHL hockey has become.

"There's still a lot of place in the game for brawn," says MacLean. "There's times you have to be strong, but the game is much faster now and the ability to move the puck quickly accelerates how fast you can play.

"The game is becoming more about skill than brawn but there's still a place for both."

Enter Kronwall and Stuart, who are a pair of bruisers that have been flattening opponents.

Kronwall, a 27-year-old Swede in his first championship series after having previous post-season wiped out by injuries, has been particularly impressive. The 12 points and plus-13 on the plus-minus scale on the resume of the six-foot, 189-pound blue-liner are leading numbers for all NHL defencemen in these playoffs.

Stuart, 28, from Rocky Mountain House, Alta., only joined the Red Wings in February from Los Angeles in a trading deadline deal so the six-foot-two Canadian and Kronwall are relatively new partners.

"He makes it simple for me," Kronwall says of skating in tandem with Stuart. "He talks a lot on the ice and is always in the right spot. He makes the game easier for me."

In two years, the former No. 3 draft pick by San Jose has played for four teams. San Jose sent him to Boston in the Joe Thornton trade. He had a stint with Calgary. Then he signed on with the Kings. Finally, a team seems to have discovered the right way to use Stuart, and he's excelling alongside Kronwall.

"For whatever reason, it seemed to click from the start," Stuart said after practice Tuesday. "We work well together.

"A lot of times we kind of know what's going to happen and we make the play. You never know if things are going to click and it's been an enjoyable to be able to play with him."

Stuart's first goal of the post-season was the winner Monday. His plus-12 puts him behind only Kronwall among all defencemen in the post-season.

"They compliment one another with the way they play and move the puck and both bring a physical element," says MacLean.

Stuart left a cellar dwellar to skate with a team that appears headed for a championship, and he's loving every minute of it.

"I've got to rank it at the top as far as the quality of the team and the experience itself," he says of where he'd slot his days as a Red Wing against all of his other NHL experiences. "It's been a lot of fun, but we're not done. Nobody is happy or content yet. We've still got a long road ahead of us."

He'll definitely consider signing with Detroit after the series, he said. He can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"I'm going to consider it, for sure, but that's something to be talked about in a week or two instead of right now," he said.

Lidstrom says the Red Wings are ready for the challenge they'll face in Mellon Arena. Pittsburgh is 8-0 at home, while Detroit is 5-3 on the road in these playoffs.

"I'm sure the fans are going to be loud," Lidstrom said. "They're going to be coming out with lots of energy and we'll have to respond as a team.

"I think they'll come after us a little bit more and try to be more physical and lay the puck in and forecheck a lot harder on us."


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