First-round breakdown: Wings-Jackets
History tells us it's almost impossible to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. That's how treacherous the playoff road is, how competitive the 16-team field is. But history also shows us the last team to accomplish the feat is this same Detroit Red Wings team. Well, not the same team, of course, that was back in 1997-98; but you get the drift.
History also tells us the top two seeds are never givens when it comes to the playoffs, especially this year in the Western Conference, where the four teams playing at the highest level when the playoffs open may be the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks. The Red Wings, meanwhile, were swept in a home-and-home series with Chicago to close out the season, and lost three straight and seven of 10 down the stretch.
So, what does that mean for the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets? Well, given the Red Wings' uneven play of late and the constant questions about their goaltending, this series could be more interesting than it should be. Detroit faces a Columbus team that is playing its first playoff series. The Jackets stumbled down the stretch, failing in two bids over the weekend to sow up the sixth seed and a more favorable matchup against Vancouver.
If you're a glass-is-half-full kind of person (i.e., if you're a Red Wings fan), then you hearken back to last season's 14 playoff victories, three shutouts and 1.55 GAA, all of which were bests in the playoffs. And if Osgood does buckle, then you believe in backup Conklin, who saved the Pittsburgh Penguins' season in 2007-08 when starter Marc-Andre Fleury went down with an injury. Still, when you look up and down the playoff bracket, there aren't many instances in which you can say Osgood and Conklin are better than other teams' netminders. Not many at all.
2. There is no switch, just sweat. Talk to Detroit coach Mike Babcock at various points this season, and you'd think his team had just lost 10 in a row and was in a draft lottery position. But Babcock knows what this team is capable of. He saw it firsthand last spring when the Wings captured the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup since 1997, and too often this season his Wings weren't that team. This was especially true defensively; the Wings ranked 19th in goals allowed per game prior to Sunday's season-ending 3-0 loss to Chicago. Last season, no one was better defensively.
The theory is, at some point, the Red Wings will simply return to form and march to at least the Western Conference finals against San Jose. Of course, few will forget their fall from grace in 2006, when they won the Presidents' Trophy and couldn't get out of the first round against Edmonton. Waiting for last season's magic to propel them forward isn't going to cut it. That said, if there's a team that should have a sense of what lies ahead and the work ethic required to get there, it's the Red Wings.
3. Wow, the playoffs. When a team like the Columbus Blue Jackets scratches and claws and defies all the skeptics and does something maybe they're not even sure they can do themselves, there is a natural tendency to say "Whew!" and deflate a bit. Maybe that's what we saw when the Blue Jackets were beaten by St. Louis and Minnesota over the weekend. If there's a coach that can re-inflate these Blue Jackets, it is Ken Hitchcock; but even for a master motivator like Hitch, it will be a tall order.
There is some playoff experience here, but not a lot. Their best player, Rick Nash, will be playing in his first playoff series. So will starting netminder and rookie sensation Steve Mason. Columbus will open in Detroit, where the Joe Louis crowd will remind the Jackets at every step they're in the home of the defending Stanley Cup champs. For the Blue Jackets to start thinking that maybe being here in the postseason is victory enough will be a tough thought to put behind them, especially if the Wings' powerful offense gets rolling early on in the series.
4. Maybe it won't matter who's in goal after all (at least not yet). The plain fact of it is, it shouldn't matter to Detroit who is in goal or whether they are playing as well defensively as last season. They have the potential to simply overwhelm the Blue Jackets. The Wings led the NHL in goals per game and had four players who scored 30 or more goals. They have Mr. Norris, Nicklas Lidstrom, who combined with Brian Rafalski for 118 points. The Blue Jackets? They had one 30-goal scorer (Nash, 40) and their entire blue-line corps combined for 135 points.
5. Dream a little dream. OK, anything is possible. For the Blue Jackets to have a chance at an improbable upset, they must first get a break with the Red Wings' injuries. That means Marian Hossa (groin) and Rafalski (groin) can't play at full capacity. Then, they have to crash the Red Wings' goal and forecheck the life out of their opponent in the hopes of creating turnovers, drawing penalties and keeping the puck away from Detroit, which does a better job of keeping the puck away from opponents than pretty much any other team in the league.
If the Blue Jackets do manage to draw penalties, they have to hope their 30th-ranked power play can generate puck movement and actually score some goals. They also have to hope Mason doesn't one day look in the mirror and go, "Holy smokes, I'm just a 20-year-old kid from Oakville. I can't even buy a beer in half the cities I play in." If all of those things happen, and not just once, but four times, then maybe this playoff dream will go on for the Blue Jackets.
• Columbus: Rick Nash has, not surprisingly, been the catalyst for the Blue Jackets down the stretch, collecting 12 points in the last nine games, including four multi-point efforts. Rookie Jakub Voracek looked like a Calder Trophy candidate for the first half of the season, but has managed just one goal in his last 32 games.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
2009 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
The Stanley Cup playoffs kick off Wednesday. Scott Burnside, Pierre LeBrun and the rest of our NHL team preview the first round:
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