Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Litmus Test

As stated by several hockey writers throughout the start of this season, the Detroit Red Wings are the measuring stick that all other teams in the league compare themselves to. Being the reigning Stanley Cup champions helps a team to earn that title, but the true reason behind their success is their consistency created by the people behind the scenes. From GM Ken Holland right on down to head coach Mike Babcock on the bench, this franchise is saavy in all areas of management. Their business model is what all other NHL franchises aspire to one day become.

Now don't get me wrong, I hate the Red Wings, they're like the New York Yankees of the NHL. But you have to admit that this team is consistently in contention for the biggest prize in all of hockey, and that's no easy feat.

When teams play the Red Wings, they gear themselves for one of the biggest games of the year, for that same reason. Detroit fans, bandwagon or otherwise, come out in all parts of the country to support their team, making them one of the biggest, if not the biggest draw of visiting teams in the entire league. But that's not the main reason for the draw, its the fans knowing that they are going to see a hell of a game when the Wings come to their rink. Even if the local team isn't much of a challenge, fans know they are going to see some world class talent on the ice with the likes of Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and Lidstrom.

If you beat the Wings, that's something to be proud of. But like my old hockey coach used to say, "they're human, they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you," in an 82 game season they can't win them all, and are bound to have a few bad nights just like everyone else in the league. But how you beat the Wings is what really tells you if your team has the stuff to pull off 16 wins in the post.

The Boston Bruins, the hottest team in the East right now, played the Red Wings a little over two weeks ago, and beat them by a score of 4 to 1. Four to one sounds like a pretty normal hockey score, but the way the Bruins beat the Wings was another matter completely. The B's controlled the tempo, played the Detroit-style, or Babcock-style puck possession game to perfection, and had a 3 goal lead just before the halfway mark. Detroit scored on the Power Play late in the second, to crack the perfect game of Manny Fernandez, preventing the game from being a sound thrashing.

And now the San Jose Sharks, the hottest team in the West, will face the Wings on Thursday night after a tune-up game against the Blue Jackets tonight. If the Sharks are as good as they look, and as good as they are on paper, then Thursday night will have to be undeniable proof that they are the team to beat. The Sharks are notorious for their shortcomings in the playoffs, with big expectations and little playoff success. The expectation could not be any bigger this year with the start that the Sharks are having. Everyone in the San Jose area, and all avid hockey fans have to believe that this is the year the Sharks go all the way.

If not now, when?

...A couple of things to note, in the comparison of the Bruins playing the Wings, and the upcoming Sharks game. The Bruins played at home in Boston against Detroit, and that will be the only time they face the perennial powerhouse this year. The Sharks are playing in Detroit on Thursday night, and have already beaten the Wings in San Jose by a score of 4 to 2. The Sharks will face Detroit twice more, one home, one away before the regular season ends. All tests. The Sharks are playing tonight, which will certainly affect their jump, and their game tomorrow night. But with that said, Columbus is a push-over with no playoff record to speak of, and should be a nice warm up to the real showdown on Thursday. However this scheduling is no different from the Bruins schedule in late November, when they faced another bottom-feeder, the New York Islanders, and steamrolled them by a score of 7 to 2, before the faced the Red Wings the next night.

This game should show the Sharks what they are made of, on unfriendly ice, against a strong team that they may certainly see in the post. It sets up to be a good one, second only to a Sharks team visiting TD Banknorth Garden on February 10th. Let's hope both teams are still this good then...

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