Tonight's the night we've all been waiting for, the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and more specifically, the Wings' first round series with the Edmonton Oilers. It's been nearly two years since we last saw Red Wing playoff action
and if you're like me, you can't wait for the puck to drop tonight at the Joe.
The Wings rolled to a league-leading 58-16-8 record, finishing with 124 points, eleven more than the second-best team, Ottawa. Granted, they had it easy playing in the Central Division, going 25-3-4 through 32 divisional games. Thirteen of their regulation losses, and five of their overtime/shootout losses, came to teams outside the Central but so did 33 of their wins, proving Mike Babcock's team can skate with any other in the league.
Still, only two of those 33 wins came against the Oilers, who were one of the few teams to give the Wings trouble this season.
They first faced Edmonton on November 3rd
and were looking to extend their win streak to 10 games. The Oilers had a win streak going themselves and ended up adding to it that night, winning 4-3
in overtime at the Joe.
The two teams squared off again two weeks later
in Edmonton. The Wings had gone 3-3 since facing the Oilers on the third and were reeling from two road losses to Vancouver and Calgary (the night before). The Oilers had won on the 14th in Colorado and were returning home after a 7-game road trip in which they went 4-3-0. The rest paid off for Edmonton, as they scored 4 goals in the first 12 minutes of the third to recover from a 3-1 deficit. They ended up winning it 6-5
in overtime, taking a 2-0 lead in the season series.
The Wings got their first win in Edmonton since December 13th, 2001 when they visited on March 18th
. They were in the process of ripping apart the league, having lost only three times in regulation since dropping two in a row in January, first to Dallas and then to Carolina on the 8th and 10th, and weren't about to let Edmonton stop the streak. The Oilers had won their last two and were then 7th in the Conference. The Wings ended up winning in a single-round shootout, 4-3
The regular season series ended April 11th
in Detroit. An injury-stricken Red Wings team had still managed to win their previous four games, with two of them coming against the lowly Blue Jackets. The Oilers had just blown a chance at clinching a playoff spot by losing to the Blues the preceding Sunday and needed some luck (which they eventually got, obviously) to make it into the postseason. It didn't come that night, however, as the Wings earned a shutout, winning 2-0
and tying the season series at two.
On April 15th, a Colorado overtime loss ensured a 7th place finish for the Avs, thus placing the Oilers in the 8th seed. The Wings ended the season with a 6-3 loss to Nashville but the Oilers won their last two games, 2-1 over Anaheim and 4-2 over Colorado.
Yesterday, news broke that Gary Bettman himself is demanding referees make calls if they want to continue officiating games. Now, the refs are professionals and theoretically should still be fair, calling things as they have all season. Right. Anyone believe that? I don't. Expect a lot more calls and if you're an Oilers fan, you'd better hope your team's penalty kill is up to the task. I don't think the Oilers' power play strikes fear in most anybody, whereas the Wings led the league with the man-advantage. I'd hate for that to become the official deciding factor in this series, though, since it's not the only facet of the game in which the Wings are better than Edmonton and it will no doubt generate a lot of whining if the calls aren't "fair."
Pavel Datsyuk is not supposed to play tonight and I'm actually not that worried. It's not like he's a big playoff performer anyway, right? I'd rather he get fully healthy so he can focus on actually doing something in the postseason beyond getting mugged.
Speaking of playoff under-performers, Manny Legace is going to get another chance at proving himself tonight. I'd say he gets two bad games, that's it. I think he's ready this time, though. And if not, we always have Chris Osgood.
The best thing about tonight? All of the talk that's been going around the past few days will be forgotten, temporarily at least. Edmonton is going to have to put their money where their mouth is and actually perform tonight. The Wings, who I think have been pretty cautious with their comments, just have to play like they have all season, with a good work ethic, solid passing and with their heads on their shoulders. I really have confidence in this team and think that Babcock's got them in the right mindset.
Tonight, it begins. I can't wait.
(I'll probably be adding to this as the day goes on, so check back).
Update (3:50 PM): Ansar Khan reports
that Brett Lebda will be the team's sixth defenseman tonight. Lebda was paired with Kronwall in practice yesterday and though a rookie pairing may not be all that smart in a playoff game, that could be what Babcock goes with. Jason Woolley and Cory Cross will have to wait, which has to be hard on them, but Lebda deserves a spot. He's been better than Woolley all year and is at least more exciting than Cross.
Also, Babcock confirmed Pavel's status: he will not play tonigh but should be ready for Game 2. That puts the pressure on you, Hank. Bring it.
(Just over three hours until we find out whether this team is for real or not.)