I don’t know about you guys, but that was one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve had as a Red Wings fan. The only year that comes close in the years since I’ve followed the team is 2001-2002. Impeccably assembled, expertly coached, and exemplarily lead, this year’s squad was certainly the best we’ve seen since that year and one of the best in team history.
I had confidence in the Wings’ ability to go all the way this season ever since their elimination at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks last year. I felt then that they were just a bounce or two (or injury or two) away from the Finals at that time and that with much the same roster this season together with another year’s worth of experience, they could do it. It was my expectation going into this season that they would learn from their mistakes and finish the deal.
Throughout the regular season, all the signs were good. Though there were obviously concerns about their troubles with the Central Division, they easily handled most of the Western Conference. Throughout this, they were doing such unprecedented things as sweeping California or Western Canada road trips. They also handled the Eastern teams theyt faced relatively easy, with a couple road bumps in Ottawa and against Atlanta.
The February skid was definitely cause for concern, but the obvious explanation for that was injuries. It became obvious that the Wings had a great chance to suceed if they just remained healthy. Injuries threw a definite wrench in the works because they were playing a team system to a degree I don’t think they ever have. The system could overcome small numbers of injuries to players of varying positions, but losing 2/3 of the blueline over that skid really threw things off. Fortunately, they seemed to meet their seasonal injury quota in that month alone and did not have that kind of trouble again.
Going into the playoffs, my expectations and hopes were as high as ever. I thought they’d easily handle the Predators and the shock of their eventual troubles in the first round was enough to make me more cautious. Looking back, I’m now glad they faced that adversity. The Preds gave the Wings a scare when they made the series 2-2 and exposed something of a composure weakness. Fortunately for Detroit, Nashville didn’t have the firepower to really bring the hammer down and the Wings were able to learn their lesson from a position of relative safety. Another first round opponent may have been able to turn a dream season into a nightmare.
With Colorado, I thought we had a potential classic series coming. Prior to the series, Colorado looked formidable and memories from the regular season games in which the Avs played the Wings very closely seemed to indicate we’d see some great hockey on both sides. In the end, the Wings had an easy time of it as the Avs’ got the injury bug with a vengeance. If anything, it was a cautionary tale to Wings fans as they same thing very much could have happened to the Wings.
The Stars series was worrisome going in. Dallas had pulled off two big upsets on their way to the Conference Final so it was obvious that underestimating them would be a mistake. Fortunately, they came out flat for the first three games and the Wings were able to take a stranglehold going into Game 4. A couple Stars wins later and something of the fears stirred up in the first round by the Predators returned. Winning four games in a row against the Wings proved to be too much for the Stars, however, and we got to see what we were denied last season: Detroit with a Stanley Cup Finals berth.
By this series, my confidence in the Wings was complete. I knew the Penguins presented a major challenge with their skill and style, but I also knew that the Wings were the better team. I couldn’t see the Pens beating them over the course of seven games, though I did expect things to be close. That confidence was bourne out by the Wings’ shutting the Pens out in the first two games. Pittsburgh’s Game 3 win started to make things interesting, but the Wings appeared to shut the door on that with a Game 4 win.
Going into the potential Game 5 Cup clincher, I was attempting to remain cautiously optimistic. I certainly didn’t want to take anything for granted. The game was midly disappointing until the third period when it looked like the Wings’ defensive effort was going to seal the deal. The Pens’ game-tying goal in the final minute was a soul-crusher. Overtime was miserable. Every time the Wings had a glorious scoring chance, they seemed to be on the cusp of joy only to be denied by some freak bounce or a Marc-Andre Fleury save. Then the Pens ended it and I started to have visions of the series going to Game 7 and ending on a freak pro-Pittsburgh bounce.
I didn’t think Game 6 would be fun and, to be honest, it wasn’t. No doubt this was due to the fact that the two teams had technically already played it with nearly three full extra periods tacked on the end of Game 5. Both sides looked tired and the game lacked the raw excitement and heart-stopping power of Monday’s meeting. Game 5 also influenced my comfort level during Game 6. Despite the fact that the Wings were capably holding down a 3-1 lead going down the stretch, I found myself unable to relax. Fortunately, this prepared me for the Pens inevitable second goal and with the stress of the final minutes.
As the clock wound down to the final seconds, my thought process was something like this, “Hey, there are 10 seconds left. I can relax a little. Hey, there are five seconds left, I can be happy now. WAITNOICANTHOLYCRAPTHATWASCLOSE! Is it over? Is it over? YES!”
At the moment, it was hard to believe. As I said, I had hoped for and expected it all season, but when they finally did it, it seemed surreal. Then that pride that comes with this kind of thing came over me along with the usual giddy kind of joy.
Watching Nick take the Cup and then start the hand-offs with Drake, I noticed that I felt closer to this team than those of the past.
Don’t get me wrong, like any hardcore Wings fan, I’d claimed ownership over all previous Red Wings teams and had the one-sided familiarity that comes with watching certain players for years. With this group, however, I think my sense of closeness and familiarity comes from watching guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, and Jiri Hudler begin their careers and grow into the players they are today. It comes from watching guys like Dan Cleary and Chris Osgood redefine themselves and it comes from seeing the rest of the veterans buy wholly into Mike Babcock’s mentality. Make no mistake, a change has come over the Red Wings organization since Babs arrived and in many ways it’s like watching a whole new career develop for some of the older players.
With some of the old legends of the past, I arrived as a fan after they had already defined their place in the League, after they were already legends. I did not get to see that development. I learned to appreciate players like Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan as they already were. With regard to fans that had seen that development, I was a newcomer and always at a slight disadvantage relative to their experience. With this crop of Red Wings, I’ve gotten to watch them develop to where they are now and I’ll be there to see them go wherever they are headed from this time on. I have a real feeling of having been there at the beginning.
It’s a subtle distinction because as I said above, I’ve always claimed the Wings as my own, but this team really is mine, as much as any sports team can be. It may not have the big name Hall of Famers like the teams of the 90s and early 2000s did, but as a younger fan willing to accept this, I feel more attached to this team than ever before.
I don’t mean to imply that I don’t miss the days of The Captain, Shanny, and the others, because I do miss them. However, I’m not going to be one to excessively mourn the passing of those days. The Red Wings team we have now is the next generation and will be the stuff of legends soon enough. This Cup was just the first step.
Do you claim these Red Wings as your own?