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The defending Stanley Cup champions have six games left in their regular season. Those games are far from meaningless.
Sure, an eighth consecutive Central Division title already is in the bag, as is another 100-plus point season (ho-hum), but losses to the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators in Detroit's past two games have driven home a somewhat frightening point.
"The message I think that was sent was that we're not ready yet," Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com.
Babcock would never admit this to us, but we're guessing he's secretly happy as a clam that his team lost those two games. Crazy talk, you say? Losing those two games with the playoffs just more than two weeks away will help Babcock get a receptive audience in the Wings' locker room from here on out. The long grind is almost over. It's time to sharpen your focus, boys; the real season starts soon.
"My point is that, six games from now, we're going to play a team that's been in the playoffs for a month and half," Babcock said. "That team will have engaged physically every night for a while now. They've had their heart and soul in it. They've built momentum. We've been in a different scenario. We've had another good season; we've got 107 points right now, 49 wins, we've had good individual numbers. But the reality you and I both know is that they're going to drop the puck, and the team we're playing is going to battle for every inch of ice.
"There's no switch to prepare you for that," added Babcock, the leading contender to coach Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. "So we have six games to make a conscious decision that we want to win, and if you make that conscious decision, that means you're all in."
What Babcock will tell his veteran team during the next week or so is, you don't just drop the puck April 15 and believe you can just turn on the switch. He wants his team to start working for the playoffs now. No more sleepwalking through half the game.
Besides, no matter which team the Wings face in the playoffs -- whether it's Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Edmonton, Anaheim or Minnesota -- Babcock knows he has a tough one on his hands. The Wings won't be overconfident just because they'll be the higher seed.
"We'll be the favorite, but we'll be the favorite based on the whole length of the season," Babcock said. "I always tell the story that when I was in Anaheim and we were the seventh seed, we played Detroit in the first round and they were the heavy favorite. We had won 33 games since December or something, and they had won 34 or something like that. People didn't realize that."
We're not worried about whether Babcock will get his players focused in time for puck drop April 15 or April 16. He'll get his job done. But what Babcock can't control is how the guy in net responds when the real hockey starts. Veteran netminder Chris Osgood has had a nightmarish season, and Ty Conklin is unproven in the playoffs. Again, Babcock would never admit it to us, but we're thinking this issue is keeping him up at night. Last season, the Wings went into the playoffs after ranking first in the NHL with only 2.18 goals against per game (Osgood/Dominik Hasek). This season? They are 20th as of Wednesday morning at 2.92 goals against per game.
"Someone is going to have a chance to carry the Cup in this league, and the guy in net is going to be a big part of that," Babcock said. "That's the facts. You can't win at playoff time without solid goaltending. Now, Ozzie has got a great history. His numbers don't show it this year. So we're counting on him to engage and get himself at the top of his game."
The Wings remain the best team in the NHL from the blue line out to the forwards. No team can match their puck-possession game. They will outchance the opposition come the first round, no matter which team they draw. But if they don't get a save, things could get scary.