by: Marc Valeri
The defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings are going from facing a big, strong, physical team in the Anaheim Ducks, to facing a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2002 (second in 11 seasons), but relies heavily on youth, speed and skill in the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Ducks pushed Detroit (51-21-10) 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. And wisely, the Red Wings will take the Blackhawks (46-24-12) as an equally tough task.
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.
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, however, eliminated Calgary and Vancouver in Game 6s, and have been idle since beating the Canucks on Monday.
Chicago is in the conference finals for the first time since 1995, when it lost to the Red Wings.
A series win over the Blackhawks will launch Detroit into the Cup Finals, where they will hope to win the Stanley Cup for the fifth time in 12 seasons.
Both teams, however, have taken vastly different routes getting to the Western Conference Finals. Detroit slowly nurtured the likes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk under stars such as Steve Yzerman, giving them a chance to develop on their own terms. Zetterberg and Datsyuk were late-round picks, drafted 210th and 171st overall respectively, and were groomed to be stars of the future. Datsyuk was a third-line center under coach Scotty Bowman, now a consultant for the Blackhawks, as a 23-year-old rookie when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup seven years ago. Zetterberg’s production as a 22-year-old rookie the next season, scoring 22 goals, was simply a bonus.
Chicago, on the other hand, didn’t get a chance to do that, as they immediately launched the likes of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews right into the spotlight. Kane and Toews were taken first and third overall in the 2007 and 2006 drafts, respectively, and were leaned on right away.