Wings nothing but relieved after Game 7
DETROIT -- There were smiles, but also bruises, in the home dressing room at Joe Louis Arena on Friday night. And a lot of exhaling.
The 2008 Stanley Cup champions were pushed to the limit by the 2007 Stanley Cup champions, a 4-3 nail-biter in Game 7, ending the best-played series in the second round of the NHL playoffs.
Yes, you read that correctly. The Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins series was historical and darn entertaining because of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, and the Boston Bruins-Carolina Hurricanes matchup needed overtime in Game 7, but the battle between the Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings was unbeatable for pure competition.
"Oh my god, what a series it was," said Wings star forward Marian Hossa, taking a breather between comments. "Just lots of grinding. We stuck with it and got a huge goal at the end. Thank god this series is behind us."
Two teams that know what it takes made each other pay the price every inch of the way for seven games.
"The best series I've been in since I've coached in the league," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "For sure, the hardest series."
Added Wings GM Ken Holland: "This is as close to one of the best series our team has ever been involved in."
That's saying something coming from a guy who has four Stanley Cup rings. That's the respect the Ducks deserve after refusing to quit. They looked dead after a listless Game 5 loss, but dug deep like champion teams do and took Game 6 to force the seventh and deciding game. Again on Thursday night, they looked down after Mikael Samuelsson made it 3-1 Wings with 3:37 left in the second period.
Two heavyweights going punch for punch and the bell sounding for the 12th round.
"At the end, it was about will and determination," said Holland. "We went up 3-1 tonight and they willed their way into the game. It was anybody's series with eight minutes to go."
Daniel Cleary stuffed home the winner with three minutes to go. The Joe rocked, and the Ducks finally relented.
"We took them right to the end," said Perry, his voice quivering. "A lot of people didn't expect us to get through San Jose and take Detroit to seven games. There's a lot of character in here and everybody showed that again tonight."
The No. 8 seeds knocked off the President's Trophy-winning Sharks in six games and scared the life out of the defending champs. No second-round loser deserves more respect from us than Anaheim.
"You have to earn it against these guys," said Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "You can tell the experience they have on their team and you play in a series like this."
Babcock had predicted a long and hard series. He got it.
"What people don't understand is, the people that have won know what it takes to win it and they don't give in," said the Wings coach. "They just keep coming and that's why they were so hard to get rid of. I say this to Ken Holland all the time, there are lots of teams that are home for the playoffs and they think that they are close, but they don't know. Because until you measure your players at this time of year, you don't know if you're close at all."
The Wings? They know what it takes and they get it done in all kinds of ways. Thursday night's hero was Cleary, the pride of Newfoundland, scoring his first career game-winner in the playoffs. He's a player anyone could have had a few years ago, but of course it was the Wings who saw the potential that remained in the former first-round pick and grabbed him off the scrap heap.
"He's been tremendous in the playoffs for us all the years," said Holland. "Those are the guys that help you win, the guys that go in the hard areas."
In a league where increasing parity continues to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots -- with the eighth-seeded Ducks and sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes showing that again this season -- the Wings continue to flourish despite a salary cap and challenges from other teams.
"I'm real proud of the work that Ken Holland and [assistant GM] Jim Nill have done to keep us here," said Babcock. "This is three years in a row that we've been in the final four, and in the cap world, that's phenomenal."
Now comes the latest challenge -- the young Chicago Blackhawks, an Original Six rival and Central Division foe. The kids are knocking at the door and want to prove to the hockey world their shot at the prime time isn't a fluke.
Can't the Wings take a breather? Game 1 is Sunday at 3 p.m. ET at Joe Louis Arena.
"We've got a hungry, hungry Chicago team waiting for us here," said Babcock. "It's two Original Six teams. [Blackhawks coach] Joel Quenneville is a good friend of mine. I look forward to coaching against him. It should be fun."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.