DETROIT -- With the game over and a 4-0 rout of Mike Babcock and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the books, Detroit Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader could admit it felt good. It felt good for the Wings to open the season with a win and do it so convincingly against the coach who left their organization in favor of the Maple Leafs.
"It always feels good opening night to get a win -- obviously a little extra special for all of us against Babs," Abdelkader said, following his hat trick performance in Detroit’s opener. "I mean, it’s our old coach, right? Obviously there’s pride. It’s hockey, it’s business, people move on, people go in different places. We turn the page now. Obviously it felt good to win."
It was just one game, but it was a reminder of what Babcock is leaving behind in taking on the challenge of coaching the Maple Leafs.
The Red Wings looked fast. Their top line of Henrik Zetterberg, Abdelkader and rookie Dylan Larkin clicked from the first shift. One of Babcock’s concerns in weighing whether or not he wanted to return to Detroit was a concern whether or not any of the young players were good enough to replace Pavel Datsyuk or Zetterberg once they retired.
Larkin certainly looked the part on Friday night.
He scored his first NHL goal and assisted on Abdelkader’s second goal. He showed high-end skating and a willingness to play with an edge.
"He gives them speed and he’s real competitive," Babcock said.
Goalie Jimmy Howard, who lost his job last spring, was perfect in goal and Jeff Blashill looked completely comfortable behind the bench in earning his first NHL win as a head coach.
"I don’t think I was surprised at how good Detroit played or anything like that," Babcock said. "I just think we have to be better."
The game was a reminder of what Babcock left and also a reminder of the gap between the two franchises. Both teams have good young talent, but the Red Wings can feel comfortable plugging the 19-year-old Larkin into their lineup because it’s a healthy, winning environment in which to learn the NHL game. It’s a luxury to be able to start your career skating next to Zetterberg and Abdelkader.
"Those are nice guys to play with if you’re a kid," Babcock said.
That’s not a luxury the Maple Leafs have right now. They’ve wisely decided not to rush any of their kids, and the long-term approach comes with short-term pain. Games like Friday night's loss. There's a sizable gap in talent level between Babcock’s current and previous NHL rosters.
He knew it going in and it was affirmed in a big way on Friday.
The fans in Detroit gave Babcock a nice ovation when the Red Wings honored him with a thank-you message on the scoreboard during a stoppage in play. Babcock gave a wave to the crowd and then both sides moved on.
"It was nice of them to do. They sure didn’t have to do that," Babcock said of the thank you. "I’ve said it a number of times, I’m glad this is all over to be honest with you. The Leafs played the Red Wings today and they won. It’s that simple."