Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Red Wings blogger weighs in
A Round 3 Q&A with On the Wings' Matt Saler

The Red Wings' wing of the blogosphere is the most well-developed of the four remaining teams, so I had my pick of who to tag for a closer look at Detroit heading into the conference finals.

Here are some inside answers from ace blogger Matt Saler of On the Wings, a terrific Red Wings resource:

Q. Johan Franzen's the talk of hockey so far — is he the hands down team MVP candidate so far? Who else has really stood out or could get Conn Smythe consideration down the line?

On stats alone, Johan is the MVP. He's been incredible and not just in the offensive zone. He's looking great at the other end as well. To solidify his position, though, he'll need to keep up the stellar play through this round and (I hope) the next. It's too much to expect him to score at the same rate, but if he can continue to score timely goals and be a force in the defensive end, he'd be my pick.

As far as other guys who have stood out, I'd have to say I've been impressed with Pavel Datsyuk this postseason. He looks driven and ready to carry the team on his back should it come to that. I'm expecting him to have a big third round.

Other candidates: Henrik Zetterberg's looked good, obviously, and Nick Lidstrom is always an MVP candidate. My fiance is pulling for Chris Osgood, who has been quite the steadying force. Nik Kronwall's game has matured quite well, but I don't know that I'd call him a real candidate.

What's the biggest difference between the Wings this year and last, when they lost to the Ducks in the conference finals? And do they matchup better with Dallas than with Anaheim of 2007?

The biggest difference is probably experience (and the leadership that comes with it). I think the experience of the loss to the Ducks hardened this group and provided them with that extra motivation to go the distance this time around. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have really stepped into their leadership roles and taken command. Health is another huge factor. They've been very fortunate thus far with injuries and my hope is that they'll continue to be.

As for the Stars, they're an interesting challenge. They're deep and have a lot going for them now. The Turco factor in this series will be a big one. Will his run of bad luck against the Wings continue or will this be the time he gets out of the rut? Obviously, I'd like to see the Wings do their usual work on him, but I'm expecting them to have to play a perfect series.

What's the response to the Red Wings' run been like in Detroit so far? There's been a bit of a charge that some fans in Michigan aren't as attached to this team as previous winners, and some say that's due to the fact the team is so heavily European.

I've been in West Michigan since before the run began, so I have no firsthand experience of the response in the Metro Detroit area. I did get asked to appear on Detroit public radio last week, so that's at least a sign that they're on the radar like they should be out there. The crowd at the Joe so far has looked and sounded good, so I think they're getting a good response. Of course, the Tigers' slow start probably helped with that.

Here on campus, the main sport is basketball at this time of year. As the Wings' run has lengthened, however, I'm getting more comments about the jerseys I wear on game days and I have friends who hardly think about hockey asking me how the Wings did the night before. So I think some "fans" are coming out of the woodwork and the excitement level is growing. Of course, there are still such high expectations in this state for the Wings (and the other major pro teams with the exception of the Lions) that a lot of people have something of the attitude that if they're not in the finals, they haven't really done anything.

As for the European aspect, I think there's something to that. In years past, a guy like Steve Yzerman was easy to idolize because of the cultural symmetry there. I personally don't think this batch of Red Wings is any less likable, but I think the Wings could probably do a better job of marketing them. Fans like me who have watched Datsyuk and Zetterberg grow into the players they are today can feel that attachment much more easily than a guy walking in off the street and saying, "What kind of name is Datsyuk?" For whatever reason, it wasn't as much of an issue during the Russian Five years.

There's just not the same recognition that there once was and that's a league and a team marketing problem. I was talking to a big sports fan the other day who hadn't even heard of Sidney Crosby. My first thought was that he must be living under a rock, but then I realized that if people are still behind on the league's poster boy, imagine where they are with guys they market far less like Zetterberg and Datsyuk. It all goes back to the effect of the lockout — the ramifications that lost year had on the league's image even in a hockey market like Michigan. Even today I hear people call it a strike. But I digress...

I try to tell people to give this Wings team a chance to grow on you. A lot of nights, they might do something that will wow a prospective fan enough to bring them back, but there are nights where their work ethic has to speak for itself. I would like to think that a hard-working, blue-collar sort of team like what we have now would be appealing to your average Michigan resident, but maybe the stigma of the Sergei "Hollywood" Fedorov years remains.

Can a run to the finals help Datsyuk and Zetterberg become the Yzerman-types of this generation of Wings?

I would hope so, though Yzerman had the name recognition before the Cups (not all of it good, I suppose). Seeing those two in the finals, especially if they go all the way, should definitely put them up there in the minds of your average Michigan resident. If the league latches on to the "Euro-twins versus The Kid and Geno" angle (if that's how things play out), that will boost them too.

Who has been Detroit's unsung hero so far in the playoffs?

I'm going to go with Kris Draper. He's been a wrecking ball and looks rejuvenated by all of this. He's leading by example, even if his offensive stats don't show it.

Where do you think people underrate the Red Wings the most?

Before the last round, I would have said secondary scoring, but I think Franzen answered that charge pretty well. At this point, I'd have to say the fourth line, which has been as solid as could be expected. Darren Helm has been great, Jiri Hudler makes it a dangerous group, and Darren McCarty is looking like a smart decision. With the Stars' depth, those three will become important this series as the Wings look to seriously roll four lines.

Is there any chance we see Dominik Hasek in this series?

I would hope we've seen the last of Dominik Hasek this year. As much as I appreciate what he's done, I have little desire to see him back between the pipes if only because that will mean the Wings are in a hole.

And how effectively do you think the Wings can deal with Dallas's triple threat down the middle of Ribeiro/Richards/Modano?

It'll be tough, but the Wings have a solid center corps as well. If necessary, they can split up the Selke finalists, Zetterberg and Datsyuk, and work on shutting down with separate lines for those two.

Franzen, before his recent goal-scoring flair, was being groomed as a jumbo-class shutdown center to silence a guy like Joe Thornton. I think the Wings will gladly trade some of those goals for tight-checking shifts against whoever he's assigned to cover.

Draper's getting older but he still has big wheels and remains the go to guy for shutting down the opposition's forwards.

Aside from center-on-center matchups, the Wings' top two defensive pairings are as good as it gets. I'm hoping for a defensive showcase by Lidstrom/Rafalski and Kronwall/Stuart.

In the end, it'll come down to Chris Osgood. He's been steady since relieving Hasek, but he's going to have to be very strong in this round. He played some of the best hockey of his career in the 1998 series against Dallas (Langenbrunner goal aside) and with the Stars' depth this time around, the Wings will be counting on him to be there again.

Thanks to Matt for helping out, and be sure to check out On the Wings as the series gets going. I'll have three more Q&As with bloggers from the other teams over the next day or so.

A Flyers blogger weighs in
A Penguins blogger weighs in
A Stars blogger weighs in

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At 5:35 p.m., May 07, 2008, Blogger Nick said...

I've become a huge Kronwall fan this year. His game has matured immensely and he's looking about a thousand times better than he did last year.

Draper is probably a good unsung hero though, he's been solid and his faceoff win % has been stellar.

At 9:12 p.m., May 07, 2008, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

Agreed on Kronwall. The other thing I'm wondering is where the last eight years of Dallas Drake's life went. He's been playing much better in the playoffs than he did in the regular season.


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