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Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
So much for the belief that the Red Wings had become too old to win in the playoffs.
In the four seasons between the 2002 title and the most recent season, the Red Wings won two Presidents' Trophies and had averaged 114 points per campaign over that span. During that time, however, Detroit lost twice in the opening round of the playoffs, once in the second round and were ousted in the Western Conference finals a year ago.
The trip to the conference finals last year should have been seen as a step forward, but when the advanced age of the club was taken into account it was deemed to be too little, too late. After all, the Red Wings ended this year's playoffs with nine players over the age of 35, not exactly a reflection of the NHL's recent youth movement.
Perhaps the biggest difference for Detroit this year has been the head coaching of Mike Babcock, who ironically was behind the bench for the biggest letdown of the Red Wings' post-2002 championship era.
Babcock took over the coaching reins in Motown after Dave Lewis was fired following the 2004-05 campaign. At first, the switch seemed to work as the new coach led Detroit to a Presidents' Trophy with a 124-point regular season, the second-highest point total in franchise history. However, the 2006 playoffs were over almost before they started for Detroit, as eighth-seeded Edmonton knocked out the mighty Red Wings in the opening round. That early exit was another reason people didn't get overly excited about the Wings' run to the conference finals last year.
The Red Wings' head coach relied on the same sense of calm throughout this year's championship season. There was not panic after Detroit's opening-round series with eighth-seeded Nashville was tied at 2-2. Instead, Babcock decided to change his goaltender from future Hall-of-Famer Dominik Hasek to Chris Osgood, and all Osgood did was go 14-4 with a 1.55 goals against average thereafter.
In the second round, when Detroit held a 3-0 series lead only to watch Dallas win the next two games, Babcock preached about sticking to the game plan and the Red Wings won Game 6 on the road. Babcock also kept his team from getting down after losing Game 5 of the Cup finals to Pittsburgh in triple overtime, denying the Red Wings from clinching the title on their home ice.
Babcock's worth as a strategist came into focus in the Cup finals, as he routinely made the right decisions in terms of matching up with the Penguins' dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
He also had a clear advantage in how to deal with the pressure of coaching in the Stanley Cup finals. Babcock had already been to the Cup finals once before, having led Anaheim there in 2003, where they lost to New Jersey in seven games.
Babcock turned down an offer to remain with the Ducks following the lockout season, and that could have been considered a disastrous decision prior to his team winning it all this year. Last year, Anaheim was the club that bounced the Red Wings out in the conference finals and the Ducks went on to win the Cup. Apparently, that only made Babcock fight even harder to claim his own championship in 2008.
Although such a significant portion of their roster consists of players over the age of 35, Babcock, along with the fact that Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have yet to reach 30 years of age, gives the Red Wings an excellent chance to add another title in the near future. Not to mention Babcock also has general manager Ken Holland's ability to draft circles around the majority of the NHL at his disposal.
It was thought recently that the Red Wings were a team of the past, but with the same leadership in place on the ice in captain Nicklas Lidstrom and off the ice (Babcock & Holland), Hockeytown can once again focus on the prospect of winning in the present.
PENS' DISAPPOINTMENT WON'T LAST LONG
Now that the Cup finals are over it is time for the Penguins to begin the healing process . And, if they look at their season realistically, the wounds should heal fairly quick.
Pittsburgh is the rare example of a team, unlike Detroit and many other recent Cup finalists, with the luxury of making the Stanley Cup finals while going through a dramatic youth movement. In fact, the ages of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh's three best players, add up to 64 years combined.
Crosby, the team's 20-year-old captain, will determine the direction this team takes and if his accomplishments at such a young age are any indication, the Penguins are in good hands.
The key for the Penguins is to not linger on the disappointment of their unfulfilled dream, but to use the letdown as incentive to work even harder. Crosby will certainly take that path if the stories of his already obsessive conditioning habits are even half-true.
The toughest challenge for Pittsburgh's future lies in the hands of general manager Ray Shero, who has the unenviable task of trying to keep all of his young talent with the Penguins despite the limitations of the salary cap. Then again, if he's only able to keep Crosby, Malkin and Fleury on the squad, the Pens will still be a perennial Cup favorite.
Another thing that should help the Penguins from wallowing in their Cup finals loss was the goodwill heaped upon the club by the hometown fans after the Game 6 loss to Detroit. The crowd was into the game even when the Pens were down 3-1 in the latter stages of the third period, and exploded when Pittsburgh was able to cut the deficit to one goal. When it was finally over, the crowd waited for their team to skate off the ice and showered them with applause.
If the Penguins' fans realize the team is on the brink of greatness, then there is little chance that fact has been missed by the players.
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