Tondar's Daily Rant

Prepare yourself for the writings of Tondar the Destroyer, Baron of Atlanta, Rightful Heir to the Throne of Spain, from whom all babies come. As his will be blogged, so let it be done.

Monday, May 05, 2008

WINGS '08 PLAYOFF PREVIEW: EPISODE VI RETURN OF THE JEDI

From Seth...


This is a bad week to do an in-depth preview, but I'll try to nail the highlights.

I'm going off The James Theory that Star Wars is about Anakin Skywalker, not Luke, and therefore, the "Jedi" referred to in the name of Episode VI is Darth Vader.

STANLEY WARS
EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI

The Red Wings have returned
to their home planet of Hockeytown
in an attempt to take the Western Conference
Championship from the clutches of the evil gangster
Morrow the Hutt. But little do the Wings know that the
DALLASTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new
armored defense even more powerful than the dreaded '98 Death Stars.
If completed, this ultimate weapon could spell certain doom for the small band
of Red Wings struggling to restore scoring to the NHL galaxy......


Forwards (Detroit, because even crack Stormtroopers can't beat Ewoks)
Mike Modano, captain crunch (Brenden Morrow) and Jere Lehtinen are still around, but they're supplemented nowadays with Brad Richards, their version of Pavel Datsyuk, Niklas Hagman, who's a Dan Cleary type of player, and Mike Ribeiro, a gutsy little center who reminds me of young Ron Francis or Igor Larionov. Oh, and Stu Barnes is supposedly still alive and living in Dallas, though he's finishing out his days as a sometime checking center and isn't a threat anymore. Their real defensive center these days is Steve Ott, who isn't the best at his job. Really, it'll be up to their defense to stop our offense; their back lines are a weakness, basically young minutes killers. Dallas typically tries to match their scorers against our scorers, letting Morrow beat down our best offensive players while Zubov and two-way star Modano look for openings to exploit. This means there's a big opportunity for our back-enders to step up, getting production from Hudler, Cleary, Franzen, et al. Babcock might get creative with the lines here, especially at home, so that he has Draper against Modano's line, and Zetterberg and Datsyuk can get some room to operate.


Defense (Detroit, but only slightly)
The Stars play very tough defense, led by Sergei Zubov, who is the Larry Doby to Lidstrom's Jackie Robinson (that means he does everything Lidstrom does, but just a tiny bit worse). He's paired with the cool and collected Mattias Norstrom, who used to be a scoring threat. Matt Niskanen is the rookie sensation, kind of reminds me of young Barrett Jackman. Stephane Robidas is a solid player who never gets enough credit. Philippe Boucher could be back for them -- a big guy with a booming shot, but he's streaky, but when he's on his game he's a fantastic blueliner. They also have Trevor Daley, a defenseman you'd swear they stole from the Detroit organization since he moves well with the puck and has lots of untapped scoring potential. Daley has a ton of heart, and he's quick to get on you. However, he still makes some mistakes. Detroit's defense don't stand you up as often, but they can score more to make up for it. I think they beat us in 5 and 6, but we have the better Top 4 all the way through.


Coaching (Wash)
The Stars right now look weak, and our intelligence has made us feel confident that we can get past their defenses, lower the shield, and strike at their heart. But I fear that The Emperor (Hitchcock) is luring us into a trap.


I think Babcock was the coach of the year, but Hitchcock is probably the guy whose impact is most felt when watching his teams. He employs -- heck, he invented -- the Neutral Zone Trap, which is as much his as the West Coast Offense is Bill Walsh's. If you don't have the right guys, you need to clutch and grab to make it effective, but Hitchcock has the guys who can just hit the snot out of you or beat you down the ice to negate an odd-man rush. Imagine a team of Dallas Drakes and Kirk Maltbys.


Something tells me, however, that Babcock has a plan. The one thing he has imparted on his players is how to beat the trap, exploding through the neutral zone with control, maintaining puck possession over the line, and being aggressive in the corners. But the way Dallas runs it, this isn't easy. You can blow by Scott Hannan any day (really, the irrepressable suckitude of Hannan is probably good for two goals per game for anyone playing Colorado), but try that against Zubov and you'll find yourself skating puckless into their zone while the Stars are rushing into yours 4-on-3.


Goaltending (Dallas)
When Red Berenson first knew him, Marty was already a great goaltender, but Red was amazed at how strong he was in the force.
Berenson took it upon himself to train the young netminder as a Jedi. Red thought that he could instruct him just as well as Steve Shields.


But then Marty was seduced by the dark side of the force. He ceased to be Marty Skywalker and became Darth Turco. When that happened, the good man who led Michigan to a 127-28-7 record and two NCAA Championships over four years was destroyed.



He's more machine now than man, twisted and evil.


But we sense there's good in him. He just needs a young Jedi, skilled in the art of the lightsaber, to defeat him in combat and show him back to the good side (and then sign with Detroit next year?)


Turco Vader has one fatal weakness, and this was exposed against San Jose. If you look closely at Figure 1, you can spot it right away.





See it?


C'mon!

No glove hand.


High glove side on Turco is the Kryptonite of the Stars.


Other than that, the man is impervious. He's a super athlete and can get from side to side faster than anyone not named Martin Brodeur. Turco knows how to freeze a puck, and can scramble like Hasek in his prime.


The way to defeat him is to fly your X-Wings and Millenium Falcon right into the superstructure of the Dallas defense, fight your way into the slot, and whip it through traffic to his glove side high -- last night during the game the TSN guys mentioned several times that he has only a 60-percent rating against shots in that quadrant.


Osgood has been good in the way that winning Wings goalies are usually good -- he has stayed relatively sharp after not facing many shots, stops some big chances late, and ends up with a 90-percent save percentage -- stopping 18 of 20 -- and a 2.00 GAA. That's hot goaltending for Detroit, considering most of the shots he normally faces are heavily screened.


Turco has been flat-out good. He's the smartest goalie in the NHL. He's an offensive threat with his amazing puck handling, and ability to get the puck to his forwards up-ice during opposing teams' changes. He's also known as the toughest goalie to go one-on-one against, partly because his team is great at getting back in time to harass breakaways. This is the kind guy who would have been a superstar before goalies started dressing as the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man.


On the plus side, Detroit has been Turco's bane. In his career, he has one win in Detroit, and that came when we were on our February slump, which has been stricken from the record books.


Pavel Datsyuk's biggest highlight reel goal was when he made Turco his b.i.t.c.h. on a breakaway, and every night since then, I have it on good authority, Turco has woken up in a cold sweat, clutching his pillow, and muttering "Datsyuk..Datysuk...Datsyuk." With sophisticated modern technology, we have been able to get a recording of Turco's constant nightmares, which look like this:




(except instead of "DEMO" his dreams say "Datsyuk").


(For those of you not banned from such things, here's the full thing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbGkALps6SA -- and don't let the "Minnesota Wild-like uniform" fool you; it's Turco, wearing an ill-advised Stars alternate uni that the City of Dallas would like to forget about as much as Turco would like to forget this goal.


Intangibles (Detroit)
The last series was trying for the Stars, as they went up 3-0, then let the Sharks back in the series, finally winning 4-2. Four of the six games went to overtime. You could see it was taking a toll by Game 6, with sloppy, tired play on both ends, even before they went to a 4th overtime to finish it. In their last four games, the Stars have just five regulation goals. Last night it took them the span of two full games plus 9 minutes to tally two. That's the definition a cold team, being held up by its goalie.


The Wings were as hot as they've been in a decade coming into Game 4 against Colorado, but the layoff could have cooled that a bit. I think we'll know how this series will go in the 1st period of Game 1. If Detroit can take advantage of its fresh legs and pummel Dallas early, the Stars will be on the ropes all series. If Turco can weather the early storm, we might be in for a battle.


The reason those first games are so important is that Dallas needs to get this series over quickly, and it needs home ice advantage. Their team is built for their wet home ice, though they did manage to win the opening two against San Jose.


Given Detroit's firepower on the first line, Hitchcock also needs the home-ice right to 2nd substitution to keep Zetterberg and Datsyuk bottled up.


If the series goes long, the fresh-legged Wings' advantage grows, as tired Stars give in to nagging injuries (we already know that Barnes and Boucher would not be playing if this was a regular season game), and lose the speed they need to play their brand of hockey. Detroit will probably lose at least one in Dallas. But if we start by winning two here, that guarantees at least a Game 6, by which time, given how much they lean on their top-6 forwards and Zubov, the Stars' best players will be dead on their feet.


Playing in Dallas is not fun. First of all, it's Texas. Second of all, it's Dallas, the city without a soul. Third, the people who watch hockey there are a different breed. They stand all game. They wear all black. They also are known for being on their cell phones and waving "Hi Mom" at the camera when a player has sustained a career- or life-threatening injury right in front of them.


But the real tricky part about playing in Dallas is the ice SUUUUUUUUUUCKS. Dallas typically goes out early in the playoffs or makes a long run, and the ice is a big reason. On wet ice, breakaways are uncommon, odd-man rushes are less of a threat, and passes through the neutral zone can easily get off-kilter and roll down for an icing. All of this plays to the strengths of a Hitchcock team. It also really f's with precision teams like San Jose and Detroit. Everything is bouncy-weird, especially late in games. This helps them in later rounds, when the May heat makes the NHL's warmest ice even warmer.


Their strategy used to be clutch and grab, but it's better described today as dump & grind. They're not ref manipulators like Calgary or Anaheim, but they do revel in a scrappy, hit-tacular non-call-a-thon, where the game is decided by turnovers and weird bounces.


In other words, this is a team that can't score or be scored upon, and therefore ends up in 1-1 ties at the end of 3rd overtime. Watch out for low-scoring games. Dallas doesn't give up many points, and neither does Detroit, so 3-2 or 2-1 scores in overtime are a strong likelihood.


Dallas likes to hit HARD. Just as these Wings have adopted captain Nick Lidstrom's silky smooth -- dare I say "Ice Man" -- style, the Stars are embodied by their (Maverick?) captain Brenden Morrow, who puts out Scott Stevens-like hits, but scores like Brendan Shanahan. He will try to rough up Zetterberg and Datsyuk early, but I think with home ice rules, Babcock can at least keep the dynamic duo away from Morrow for 20-30 minutes over the course of the series.


Still, the longer this goes, the greater the chances that Dallas' legs give out. They dominated the Sharks early on, but I think their hot streak is over (except someone forgot to tell Darth Turco). The more tired they've become, the more they've been sloppy, which will kill you against Detroit (we don't have the speed of San Jose, we have better finishers).


It's NOT going to be as easy as the first two rounds. Nashville didn't measure up, and Colorado didn't measure up AND they were injured like nobody's business. Dallas isn't. They're just tired.


One last thing to watch: Dallas loves to defend by rushing your guy in the neutral zone, stealing the puck with speed, and racing up ice. They're big, so you brace for a hit, and then they whisk the puck away -- really a beautiful thing to watch.


It's a risky strategm, though, cause if you don't get the puck or the body, you just let an opposing forward over the blue line with space. I'm going to guess that they will get four of five odd-man rushes off of our worse puck handlers, and give up just as many to our better puck handlers, and it will lead to at least one goal for Datsyuk's line. Babcock will probably try to go with the diminutive but puck-moving Brett Lebda here instead of the bigger and more physical option of Andreas Lilja, but if it's not working, don't be surprised if Babcock goes big for a game to see if McCarty, Lilja and Aaron Downey can soften up the Stars. It might be worth one night of goonery in Dallas to keep the series honest.


Cackle with knowing glee if:
--Detroit has a two-goal lead after the 1st period of Game 1
--Turco gets pulled
--Ribeiro is making mistakes


Murmur with apprehension if:
--Detroit doesn't score in the 1st period of Game 1
--Osgood lets in a softie
--Turco is doing a lot of hopping around in net
--The stripes are getting booed.


Prediction:
The Stars may look like a work in progress, reeling from their recent setbacks. It will start easy enough back on good ol' Tatooine, where I suspect the Wings will basically walz into Jabba's palace, kill his Rancor, steal his droids, throw his best bounty hunter to the Sarlaac, choke him to death with a concubine chain, then blow up his sail barge on our way out of town.


But once our fleet is in range of the sanctuary moon of Dallas, I fear we will witness the firepower of Hitchcock's fully armed and operation battle station, and if we weren't successful freeing Han in the opening sequence, getting that shield down will be a bitch. If Franzen, Holmstrom, Lidstrom, Zetterberg and Datsyuk are neutralized by their defensive top six, it will come down to whether or not our Ewoks (Valterri Filpulla, Jiri Hudler, et al.) can take out an entire legion of the Emperor's best stormtroopers (ai-chee wahwah).


But when Emperor Hitchcock thinks he's going for the killing blow (leading Game 5 in Detroit and about to take a 3-2 series lead heading back to Texas), Darth Turco will turn on him, and then we will remove his black mask and discover that beneath the armor, he was always Red and White.


Wings take Games 1 and 2, and finish off Dallas in six, maybe 5, maybe 7, depending on how the puck bounces on Lake American Airlines Center. Dallas won't win any games on the road.

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