Superb Red Wings now easy to take for granted in Detroit
The Lions' and Tigers' success made the Wings' home opener less of an event
The Red Wings quietly opened 2-0, winning challenging back-to-back games
Detroit-area sports fans now have more to cheer about than any other city's
The opening of a new NHL season arrives with anticipation, excites on multiple levels and sometimes is even telling. Some things are easily identifiable, such as the Ottawa Senators as a team that will struggle all season. The bigger issue in analyzing the Sens is how does an organization that competed for the Stanley Cup in 2007 fall so far so fast?
Whereas the Sens have by default committed to youth in a rebuilding effort, the Calgary Flames' opening weekend showed that their competitiveness in the tough Western Conference is no longer a given -- for exactly the opposite reason: Calgary's roster has gone to seed in the prairie. The organization has failed to develop players from within for far too long and it shows.
Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Jets' home opener proved that the city is giddy with excitement. The fans' enthusiasm for the return of NHL hockey permeated everything that went on there through Sunday. All fabulous and understandable, yet it doesn't change where the team is as a viable entry on the ice. The Jets remain equal parts promise and patchwork, which means everything needs to work out exactly right just for them to play meaningful games in March.
I know it is only one game, but believe me, anyone who watched the Jets as the Thrashers has seen that game many, many times before, no matter where they faced-off.
Then you have the Detroit Red Wings, long the benchmark of NHL excellence with 20 straight playoff appearances. Their season-opening game is as under the radar as I can remember. While my memory isn't great, this is more about the Wings impressing to the point of being taken for granted, right now, even in home in Hockeytown!
Detroit's attention is elsewhere these days. The Tigers prevailed over the New York Yankees to reach the American League Championship Series and the once downtrodden Lions are 5-0 for the first time since 1956. Throw in the University of Michigan at 6-0 as it heads for a game against its in-state rival, the Michigan State Spartans, and sports fans in the area have more to cheer about than any others in the country right now.
Sure, the locals showed up at Joe Louis Arena for Friday's perfunctory home opening win against the over-matched Senators. But with everything else going on in the city, please excuse even the diehards if they didn't notice what the Red Wings accomplished next. For that matter, give everyone a pass for failing to measure how impressive the Wings' 3-0 road win the next night in Denver truly was.
Why? Because the Wings have been doing it for so long. We forget that this eastern time zone-based team didn't just win on the road, in a back-to-back situation, it endured the travel, a two-hour time recalibration and the energy-sapping thin air of Colorado to prevail over the Avalanche in their home opener.
Coach Mike Babcock understatedly said, "The schedule was against us -- back-to-backs are tough this early in the year." Still, the Wings found a way to get it done. They adjusted, just as GM Ken Holland and Assistant GM Jim Nill have adjusted to developing young players in the cap era versus relying on free agent fixes; just as Babcock has tweaked the forecheck, embracing more up-ice aggressiveness and puck pursuit.
Why? Well, my guess is that in looking at how to get the most out of the entire roster, Holland, Nill and Babcock realized that overall improvement was going to come from getting the most out of youngsters like Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader. That means playing a more robust style without the puck.
So the Red Wings subtly remain the gold standard in Detroit. They've accomplished what the other three local teams mentioned above haven't -- to manage their roster, style and situation for two decades while remaining a perennial contender by anticipating, embracing and adjusting to change.
The Red Wings opened the 2011-12 campaign to less fanfare than usual -- even in Detroit -- for plenty of legitimate reasons. Conversely, I watched their opening weekend unfold more closely than I have in a long time, by virtue of my move last summer from Atlanta to Michigan. I came away impressed down to the detail. It certainly served as a reminder that not all back-to-back game situations are created equally, which led to a better understanding of why owner Mike Ilitch referred last week in the Detroit News-Free Press to Commissioner Bettman's "promise" of moving the Wings to the Eastern Conference when the NHL gets around to realignment.
Of course, that weighty NHL topic as it relates to one of Mr. Ilitch's teams can wait until his Tigers finish their postseason run. In the meantime, his Red Wings continue to show how to get it done, on so many levels. Still. After all those years.
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