Wednesday, April 2, 2008

NHL Blogging: Grind House

Right, so, the season is drawing to a close and once again the Red Wings are headed back to the playoffs. I haven't blogged about it much before because it's like blogging about the weather; it's routine. It's become not just a tradition but a birthright. Those snot-nosed punks who've come into this world after me have never known a season when they haven't. They have none of my fading and sepia-tinged memories of the Dead Wings era. That woeful period in the early to mid 80s when the team was beyond wretched. When they had to give away cars just to temp people to come down to the games. Or even of the late 80s early 90s era, a team that was on the cusp of greatness. The ones with Yzerman rolling into his prime, waves of strange, foreign players creeping into the lineup, and the pieces of their eventual championship runs starting to come together.

Is it any wonder there's no sense of excitement about it any more? A question as to why, with the economy the way it is and everything else going on, the Joe is half-empty most nights? No, to someone born in the past twenty years, they're the Yankees of hockey. No matter the structure, salary-cap or free-spending, the Red Wings have always been good, have often been great, and have always made the playoffs.

This year is no exception as the Wings look like the prohibitive favorites to nab the President's Trophy as the team with the highest point total. They've already cracked the 100 point mark and only San Jose is in striking distance. But they're a few games back with the season drawing to a close - they need to play perfectly down the stretch and the Wings have to not just lose every game but leave every point available on the table to let the best record slip through their fingers. But, even if they don't take home the top prize, the Wings have already locked up not just a playoff spot but their division as well.

Again, this is nothing new and the past few years, the Wings have ridden into the playoffs high on seeding and confidence only to flame out before taking home the Cup. And whether they've won the Stanley Cup is now the only metric that matters when deciding whether the season was a success or not. That's, you know, how spoiled we are as Detroit fans these days.

Seriously, if it wasn't for Boston or the Lions people would hate us.

But, so winning the President's Trophy is no guarantee of eventual success. And perhaps a warning sign is that while the Red Wings have, as in so many previous years, run away with the Central Division, not one other team in that division would make the playoffs if they started today (Nashville might play themselves in but, at the moment, they're the 9th spot.). That means it's a weak division and, because of the imbalanced schedule, the Red Wings have grown fat off of feasting on games against inferior competition. Throw in the fact that the Wings play in the Western Conference and the long slog of the playoffs will only be made more difficult by the extra travel. Especially if they have another series with Anaheim or San Jose. And things are looking like they're headed for another disappointment.

But, not all is gray and dark. The Wings not only have one of the best offenses in the league, they have a league-leading defense, too. In fact, their goal differential - the difference between the number of goals they score in a game and the number they let up - is the best. Not just by one or two goals over the course of a season. By one or two goals over the course of a game.

Their young players have rounded into form, as well. And maybe last year's disappointment can be a motivating factor. But, I don't know, it's hard to get excited about this team. Ever since the great players from teams past - like Yzerman or Shanahan - have retired or moved on, it's like the team lacks a spark. A personality. They're just a machine. A well-oiled, efficient machine that built for winning but one that lacks soul. Lacks heart. It's hard to root for a team that's the best. You need someone you can connect with, someone you want to see win and do well because they work hard and, maybe, they don't have the best skills but they're the scrappiest and feistiest and they're going to play for you - for all the fans - as hard as they can. Night in. Night out. Giving it everything they've got. That's what this team has been missing, I think. That's why I just can't summon up that old enthusiasm.

What's that you say?

Mac is back?

McCarty? Darren McCarty? This Darren McCarty?

Hey, man, nice shot. They even reunited the Grind Line in his first start. Oh, it is so on.

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