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Sports Illustrated JANUARY 28, 2008
THERE IS A LAUGHABLY MISGUIDED notion that just because Nicklas Lidstrom is the best player on the NHL's best team, leads all defensemen in scoring, is the league's top plus-minus player, has won five of the past six Norris Trophies, has missed only 22 games in more than 15 seasons, rarely takes penalties despite playing more than 27 minutes per game and keeps his locker obsessively neat in an otherwise Delta House dressing room that he is perfect. Yet sometimes, perhaps as frequently as Halley's Comet, Lidstrom does err. Consider the final minute of a Jan. 8 game against Colorado. The Avalanche, goaltender out, was pressing for a tying score. Lidstrom had the puck near the Detroit crease and blindly flung it toward the center of the zone, directly onto the stick of Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles. Now Lidstrom always goes tape-to-tape, but to a teammate. This time he would have sworn he was passing to his defense partner, Brian Rafalski, whom he was certain had yelled for the puck. "I heard Raffi, or who I thought was Raffi, say, 'Hep' or 'Hey, hey,' " Lidstrom said. "That was a smart play by them."
After the 1-0 Red Wings victory, Colorado winger Andrew Brunette, who was on the ice at the time of Lidstrom's errant pass, denied that the Avalanche had engaged in any gamesmanship. (Although, when the player with the NHL's highest hockey IQ remarks on your savvy, you should take it as a compliment, deserved or not.) Lidstrom's gaffe, meanwhile, became a topic of discussion in the Detroit coaches' room.
"His is almost a game of perfect," general manager Ken Holland said. "He makes a bad pass the way he did in the game tonight, and the coaches will talk about it for days because it's something that you just don't see."
THE RED WINGS trashed the idea of NHL parity by winning 30 of 41 games, the best first-half mark since the league adopted an 82-game schedule before the 1995-96 season. They were 35-10-4 through Jan. 19, a cushy 13 points ahead of the Dallas Stars, who had the second-best record in the Western Conference. "This team is playing just as good defensively as the one in 2002," says Lidstrom, 37, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring for helping Detroit to its third Stanley Cup in six years. "That team had more talent up front with all the high-profile players, but this team can have just as much success with the way we're playing now." The Red Wings lead the NHL in goal differential, goals against, shots, shots against and face-off percentage, so their first-half MVP was 1) left wing Henrik Zetterberg or 2) goaltender Chris Osgood.
Or so some said. The beat writer for The Detroit News named Zetterberg, who at the midpoint of the season led the team with 25 goals and 52 points. At the same time a fan poll on Fox Sports Net Detroit overwhelmingly favored Osgood, who was 18-2-1 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage while splitting the job with Dominik Hasek. That Lidstrom, who is merely having another immaculate season and is on pace for his standard 60-plus points, was not deemed most valuable may be because he is among the Red Wings' least voluble, a lead-by-example captain who rarely raises his voice in the locker room.
"For me, Nick's the MVP of the league," coach Mike Babcock says. "Since I got here [in 2005], every one of his defense partners, [Mathieu] Schneider, [Andreas] Lilja, [Danny] Markov, now Rafalski, has had a career year. How can you not? Other defensemen have some dimensions to their games, but Nick has all the dimensions. The only thing he doesn't do is cross-check you in the face, so he doesn't take penalties. He's on the ice all the time."
Like the elements of modern Swedish design, Lidstrom's game is all clean lines and efficiency, nothing ornate like a Bobby Orr end-to-end rush or a Scott Stevens open-ice hit. "Stevens had as many in a game as I might have in a season," says Lidstrom, who ranked 514th in the NHL in hits.
"Unlike Stevens or me, he doesn't need his daily dose of hitting," says Denis Potvin, the New York Islanders Hall of Fame defenseman who is now a color commentator on Florida Panthers games. "Lidstrom doesn't have an angry bone in his body."
There is no better exemplar of modern, sanitized hockey than a player who arrives at the arena wearing suits that have fewer wrinkles than a freshly Botoxed face and who, after a game, hangs up his own pants, lays his two sets of gloves on the top shelf of his stall and places foam pads from his skates side by side in the far left corner of the lower shelf. If you like his locker, Babcock enthuses, you'll love how precisely he tapes the knob of his stick.