Thursday April 16th, 2009

Regular season series: Red Wings won, 3-2-1

Nov. 28: Blue Jackets 3 at Red Wings 5 Jan. 6: Blue Jackets 0 at Red Wings 3 Jan. 27: at Blue Jackets 3, Red Wings 2 (OT) Feb. 13: at Blue Jackets 3, Red Wings 2 Mar. 7: Blue Jackets 8 at Red Wings 2 Mar. 15: at Blue Jackets 0, Red Wings 4

The Skinny: There's plenty to like about the Red Wings and their chances to become the first team to repeat as Cup champs in 11 years. With 295 goals, they ranked as the NHL's top offense. Their 25.5 percent power play was the most potent in franchise history. They tested opposing goalies with a league-leading average of 36.2 shots per night.

So yeah, the Wings can light the lamp. Problem is, they seemed to have little interest in keeping the puck out of their own net. Of the 16 playoff teams, only Calgary allowed more goals. Maybe that's symptomatic of a veteran team killing time until the spring, but bad habits have a way of setting in. Unless the Red Wings can get their defense in order, that no repeat champ streak will roll over to 12.

Contrary to the beliefs of Detroit's fans, it's not a matter of flipping a switch now that the games count. Full commitment to the cause will determine the Wings' success. That work ethic was clearly lacking as the season wound down. They enter the playoffs having dropped seven of their final 10. Looking-ahead syndrome? Maybe.

At least the Wings caught a break by landing the Blue Jackets as their first opponent. No disrespect to Columbus, but the team that worked its way into the playoff picture with a Hitchcockian blend of grit and discipline played the last month as though it was reading all those ads for when tickets were going on sale. Even rookie goalie Steve Mason, the player Jackets fans are praying will steal the series, comes in looking surprisingly mortal. He won just 10 of his final 22 decisions, a stretch during which his GAA ballooned to a very middling 2.52.

That's the sort of weakness that could buy Detroit another round to fix their defensive zone woes.

Spotlight's On: Chris Osgood. You were expecting Chris Chelios? Osgood's ability to backstop another title has been the subject of constant debate, with many pundits (this byline included) thinking that he might not be up to the challenge after a season in which he clearly was Detroit's weakest link. Getting off to a strong start is imperative. Mike Babcock called on him after starter Dominik Hasek struggled early in last spring's opener against Nashville. Cup winner or not, Osgood won't be afforded any additional latitude by the coach.

X-Factor for Red Wings: Marian Hossa. He couldn't beat 'em, so he joined 'em. Hossa signed with the Wings after they defeated his Penguins in last season's final and now he'll get his chance to make that discounted deal pay off. Oddly, this may be his most important series, considering his teammates' history of first round follies. Hossa's passion and game-breaking ability may be exactly what they need to ensure they aren't caught off guard by the Jackets.

X-Factor for Blue Jackets: Antoine Vermette. Scott Howson's deadline decision to address a gaping hole at center with the versatile forward has worked out better than even he could have imagined. Vermette has been a dominant force in the face-off circle and fit in nicely on the penalty kill. More important, he's helped spread the offense with his touch and willingness to drive the net (7-6-13 in 17 games). Secondary scoring will be as critical to Columbus' chances as the play of Mason. It'll be up to Vermette to spark it.

The Pick: Red Wings in five


Ducks vs. Sharks Flames vs. Blackhawks Blues vs. Canucks Canadiens vs. Bruins Hurricanes vs. Devils Flyers vs. Penguins Rangers vs. Capitals

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