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"When you really watch a game and see all the things that he does that are so well thought out, it's unreal," Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire says. "If I could have one player to help us win a Cup this year, it would be Lidstrom."
"If you could rattle him, you might get him off his game," Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett says. "Except I've never seen him rattled. He anticipates defensively the way [ Wayne] Gretzky and [Mario] Lemieux anticipated offensively."
"In pregame meetings we would remind our players that because he logs so much ice time you always want to finish your checks on him," says former St. Louis Blues coach Mike Kitchen, now a Florida assistant. "But you couldn't start your check on him because you couldn't even [find a way to] hit him. That's a credit to his positioning and to his intelligence."
Lidstrom began to develop the intricacies of his game—head up like Orr, puck on a string, mastery of the blueline geometry, deceiving pass-shot option from the left point on the power play, surgical passes that effectively enhance team speed—as a teenager in his hometown of Vasteras. Over time, Lidstrom blended those complicated elements into something disarmingly simple. As part of one of the best drafts in any sport ( Detroit not only selected Lidstrom 53rd overall in 1989 but also took center Sergei Fedorov, defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, forwards Dallas Drake and Mike Sillinger and recently retired defenseman Bob Boughner), Lidstrom entered the NHL two seasons later playing that understated style, and he surely will leave the league playing the same way. Last month he signed a two-year, $14.9 million contract extension that will pay him until he is nearly 40; given his enthusiasm and sensational good health, Lidstrom could sign another deal. "I always tell people," the Red Wings' Holland says, "you'll only miss Nick after he's gone."
DETROIT'S MOCKERY of the regular season has turned their final 33 games into a dress rehearsal, an extended audition for Osgood and Hasek (16-7-2, 2.16 goals against average) to determine the Game 1 playoff starter and for Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk to pad some already formidable numbers. Despite the Red Wings' extraordinary season, their depth of weapons (they were the only Western Conference team to have five players with 14 or more goals) and the probability that they will secure the conference's No. 1 seed, Lidstrom and the Red Wings are not guaranteed an easy ride in the playoffs. The San Jose Sharks, SI's preseason Cup pick and a team that wins with panache away from home, loom, as do the dangerous defending champion Anaheim Ducks, who got a significant boost with the Dec. 16 return of Scott Niedermayer, the NHL's second-best defenseman.
If there is a valid criticism of Lidstrom—and the fact that he neither skates as wondrously as Niedermayer does, nor crushes unsuspecting forwards in the manner of the Calgary Flames' Dion Phaneuf, is hardly important—it is this: Despite his Conn Smythe, Lidstrom hasn't noticeably raised his game in the playoffs. A typical Lidstrom match on May 10 looks like a typical Lidstrom match on Jan. 10; flatlining at an elite level is fine, but the caveat is that almost everyone on the other team has lifted his game.
"You have to be a little meaner, a little tougher, a little more disciplined in the playoffs," Potvin says. "It could be a fact of his character that Lidstrom plays at one level, and it's been great. But whether that's enough to lead a team in a critical game or a critical moment, well, we haven't seen him win his Cup yet the way we saw [Mark] Messier win a Cup without Gretzky [in Edmonton in 1990]. His other Cups were on Steve Yzerman's teams. Lidstrom will have to take them over the top because it's not going to be Datsyuk and Zetterberg. They can score and all that stuff, but leadership [is what's] going to make you a little better."
So although it is only January, the defining issue for Detroit is whether Mr. (Almost) Perfect can take a Swede-heavy roster to the Red Wings' 11th championship and become the first player born and trained in Europe to captain a Stanley Cup winner. It would go down in history as the bland leading the blonds.