I can’t help but get excited every time the Avalanche plays the Red Wings. Not just because the two teams involved have essentially owned hockey over the past decade, but that each time they have met the games have become a display of the best the game has to offer.
During decade-plus battle for Western Conference domination both teams have featured legendary talent the likes of whom measure up to any of the great teams of the past. Players like Sakic, Yzerman, Forsberg, Shanahan, Bourque, Coffey, Roy, Lidstrom, Foote, Chelios and many others.
This time around I am curious to see how the typically stout Red Wings adjust to handle an Avalanche team that they did not actually see during their regular season sweep of four games.
With the additions of Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, and Ruslan Salei at the trade deadline, the Avalanche not only shored up a questionable defense, they brought back icons from the past. Add in the healthy Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth and Paul Stastny, and the Avs have most definitely improved since their last meeting with the Wings in December.
Normally when it comes to breaking down a matchup I like to look at how one team counters the other team’s strengths while taking advantage of their weaknesses. In this matchup Detroit has weaknesses on which an underrated Avalanche squad must focus in order to come out ahead: physicality, goaltending and third line play.
After the December 27th loss, which was a physical battle, I noticed that when the Avalanche hit, the Red Wings ceased to function efficiently.
As it turns out, Nick Lidstrom is the lynchpin of the Detroit Red Wings. Whether this is Mike Babcock’s coaching strategy remains unclear, but traditionally when Lidstrom faces contact he plays passively, and by playing passively the Red Wing’s puck possession game is not as effective. Conversely, when Lidstrom is left to roam the Wing's usually meet with success.
Is this a coincidence?
Take for example the Wing's late-February swoon, which coincided with a Lidstrom injury. Lidstrom was out, and Detroit struggled to the point where it took a late season winning streak for them to secure the Presidents Trophy. More acutely, their goaltending struggled immensely during this period.
In the years of Detroit-Avalanche battles perhaps no single player has held such importance. To have a shot at success the Avs must take the body with Nick Lidstrom.
The Red Wings picked the wrong time of year to run into a goaltending controversy. Between the perpetually underachieving Chris Osgood and the showing-his-age Dominik Hasek, the Red Wing’s goaltending struggled at times against a vastly inferior Nashville team in the first round. What originally looked like an easy Detroit win instead turned into a battle of attrition due to periods of borderline incompetence between the pipes.
This season I felt the Red Wings goaltending was overrated simply because their superior defense kept the number of shots on goal down. Often in the Western Conference, goaltenders on great defensive teams benefit from inflated numbers because of the conference-wide insistence on playing the trap, and in this area the Wing’s goalies were no exception.
Should the Avlalanche somehow manage to keep the game low in the Detroit end for extended periods, I believe they will see a number of scoring opportunities against goaltenders who are not used to seeing an elevated number of shots, and become uncomfortable when placed under siege.
On the flip side, during the Avalanche series against the Wild, Jose Theodore saw less than 25 shots only once, as the Avs were out-skated by a younger, faster team. In fact, in every other game Theo saw over thirty shots, capping out at 40 during a legendary game five performance, when he stole the series from the Wild.
For the Avalanche to succeed they must master the difficult task of keeping the number of shots down in their own end, Theodore must continue his stellar play, and the offense must test the Detroit goaltenders early and often.
Third Line Play
Going into the playoffs it looked as if a healthy Ryan Smyth would regain his spot on one of the top two lines. Yet in a move that was mysterious to most Avalanche fans, Smyth was retained on the third line with David Jones. As it turns out this move by Joel Quenneville was brilliant, as it allowed the Avalanche to roll a gritty yet skilled “grind” line. By the end of the Wild series it was Smyth, not Sakic or Forsberg who came away with the winner in the final game.
It is well known that for a team to win in the playoffs it must be able to roll at minimum two solid production lines while gaining an advantage at the bottom end of the roster.
In what should be a tight checking, low-scoring series the third line is where the Avs have a clear advantage. The first two Avalanche lines will see the brunt of the Detroit defense. So the third line should be able to chip in while the likes of Lidstrom and Rafalaski are taking a breather on the bench. In the playoffs there is never a shortage of irony, coincidence, or lucky bounces, and any Avalanche success may rest on the shoulders of David Jones and Captain Canada.
Ultimately for the Avalanche to win against a talented and confident Detroit squad it must play hard, sacrifice and get a little lucky. The level of play in the second round is elevated, and Detroit series’ especially are long, brutal affairs that are won with the help of huge swings in momentum.
If the Avalanche can use Detroit's unfamiliarity with the current composition of the Avs against them they should gain a slight advantage. And hopefully this time around the Avalanche will be able to needle Detroit's weaknesses, and along with their underrated stature gain the upper hand on the Red Wings.