Posted: Wednesday January 3, 2007 12:41PM; Updated: Wednesday January 3, 2007 6:34PM
Detroit's lack of firepower makes the resurgence and health of Dominik Hasek crucial to their playoff fortunes.
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E.M. Swift will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
On a night when the past was being honored in Detroit -- Steve Yzerman's jersey was hung from the rafters alongside those of Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, and Alex Delvecchio -- the future was also being foreshadowed:
Anaheim versus Detroit, two clubs that match up against each other like, well, Ducks and Wings. The best in the west (Anaheim is now 28-8-6, despite losing three straight) against the best in the NHL over the last 10 games (Detroit is 8-1-1). The Wings won Tuesday night's game against the injury-plagued Ducks, 2-1, but look for these teams to meet again in May in the Western Conference finals.
It's tricky stuff, predicting playoff pairings in hockey. Last season, Detroit easily had the NHL's best record, but was summarily eliminated in the opening round by the lowly Edmonton Oilers, who barely squeaked into the playoffs. What happened? One word: goaltending. Detroit outplayed Edmonton in every game, but Oilers goalie Dwayne Roloson stood on his ear the entire series. Wings netminder Manny Legace never made a save when the Wings needed one.
Legace has moved on to St. Louis, and Detroit G.M. Ken Holland signed goalie Dominik Hasek for the rock-bottom price of $750,000, plus as much as $1.1 million in incentives -- a move that should put Holland in the hunt for NHL Executive of the Year. What are Hasek's incentives? He'll get $450,000 if the Wings win the first round of the playoffs; $450,000 if they win Round 2; another $200,000 if they win the Stanley Cup.
There are those -- my esteemed Sports Illustrated colleague Michael Farber is one -- who believe that all of this will end badly for Detroit. They predict that the mercurial Hasek will go down with another groin injury (he's had two season-ending pulls in the last three years) or somehow undermine the dressing room, as he was accused of doing in previous stints in Buffalo and Detroit. But I'm betting on the Dominator, who turns 42 on Jan. 29, to go out in one last wave of glory. The man is a big game player -- he's won an Olympic Gold medal and a Stanley Cup -- and is, simply put, one of the greatest goalies in the history of the game.
Hasek's still great. His record this season is 21-5-3 with a phenomenal 1.80 goals-against average, .921 save percentage, and five shutouts. And he's just hitting his stride: 12-1 with one no-decision since Thanksgiving. For reasons that he can't explain, Hasek has always been a slow starter. His lifetime GAA in October is 2.73, whereas in February, March and April it's 2.03, 2.06, and 2.04 respectively. If the man can stay healthy, Detroit's going to be a handful in the playoffs.
That's a big "if." But everyone in the organization, including Hasek himself, knows how much is at stake. Coach Mike Babcock is not going to play Hasek on back-to-back nights. The Wings are carrying three goalies, so when Hasek doesn't start, he doesn't dress. He stretches for a half-hour before ever taking the ice. And at 42, the 5' - 11", 166 -pound goaltender has the body-type and flexibility of a 30-year-old yoga instructor.