Wednesday March 12th, 2008

It's understandable that the Detroit Red Wings are about to finish off the season burdened by so little in the way of expectations. Sure, they're likely to enter the playoffs as the President's Trophy winners, with an enviably deep blueline and a reasonably healthy lineup itching to take full advantage of the home ice they'd earned all the way through the Finals.

But we've seen this act before, haven't we?

These are the Red Wings: regular season juggernauts who've earned the top seed in five of the past 12 seasons, but have just one Cup to show for their troubles. So it's little wonder that the Ducks, Stars and even the Sharks of the 10-game winning streak are regarded as steaming toward their date with destiny while the first-place Wings are considered nothing more than a speed bump, if they're considered at all.

Not so fast, Bucko.

Unlike recent incarnations, these Wings have the cattle to match the hat. Tuesday's convincing win over the Blackawks, a team that had vexed them all season, was Detroit's fourth straight since coming out of an abysmal 1-8-2 spiral that brought them back to the pack in February. And as troubling as that stretch was, it may just have smacked them back to their senses and made them a much more dangerous opponent come April.

There are obvious differences between this club and the one that was pummeled into submission in the Western Conference Finals by the Ducks last spring. But the transformation is about more than simply who's gone (Mathieu Schneider, Todd Bertuzzi, Robert Lang and Jason Williams) and who's arrived (Brian Rafalski).

Last year's Wings were outmuscled by the marauders from Anaheim, and there's still concern in some corners that relentless physical play could be their undoing this time around. But these Wings are a deeper squad than last year, thanks to increased contributions from maturing youngsters like Johan Franzen (three consecutive game-winners), Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler, and the most effective defensive pair in the game: Rafalski and Nick Lidstrom.

But this group also has something under their belts that their predecessors didn't. These Wings have faced adversity. And they've lived to tell.

Say what you want about the beatings they took in February. While their top-ranked defense was mercilessly cut down by injuries to the big four blueliners, the transition game sputtered, the power play went limp and the offense squeezed out two goals or fewer in eight contests, the Wings learned a lesson about mental toughness. Even when the roster was littered with journeymen and greenhorns, they still managed to stay within one goal of their opponent in six of their losses, hanging tough at a time when they had every excuse to get blown out of the barn.

The Wings hung tough by recognizing that they're not going to send opponents scampering for cover simply by showing up with the winged wheel on their chests. Effort, and a tireless devotion to coach Mike Babcock's scheme, is their ticket to success. That's true even now that the defense corps (for a time led by the game-but-undistinguished Brett Lebda) is back to full strength, and the returns of Daniel Cleary (March 25) and Tomas Holmstrom (7-10 days) are on the horizon.

If Babcock hadn't already convinced his charges of the wisdom of sticking to the plan, the point was made for him on Sunday. The Wings led Nashville 4-0 with 8:36 to play before giving up a pair of power play goals and a third with the Chris Mason pulled for the extra attacker to make an interesting game out of what had the makings of a cakewalk.

But as ominous as that may seem on the surface, there was a moral victory on top of the two points the Wings earned. Desperation was the name of the game for the ninth-place Predators, and that's the way it's going to be with almost every opponent Detroit faces down the stretch and into the second season.

Over the past few seasons, the playoff version of the Wings has looked like a team that needed a wake-up call after cruising through the regular season. This year, that call came early enough to make an impact. A conference lead that was whittled down to just three points during the slump has been reinforced to eight. Now, in the wake of Tuesday's victory, the Wings are just one win away from reaching the 100-point plateau for the eighth straight campaign. They can hit the mark on Thursday with a win over the Stars, a team they've owned for the past few years, but also one that feels like it's ready to compete with the Wings after beating them 1-0 in Dallas on Feb. 17.

Thursday might be the last chance for the improved Stars to throw the Wings a beating. As a team that relies on puck possession and a controlled transition game, the Wings won't be at 100 percent until the returning blueliners truly get their legs back under them. But even operating at 80 percent or so, Detroit looks like a confident squad capable of snapping your neck before you know what's hit you. Tuesday's win over the Hawks added to their sixth streak of three wins or more. Three have been runs of at least seven wins.

String together a couple of them at the right time and the Red Wings will be in for a much more rewarding playoff run. Maybe even one befitting the league's best team.

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