A must-win already in Detroit? Believe it
DETROIT -- There's a raw honesty about playoff hockey that is its best quality.
The names on the back of the jerseys don't matter; neither does all the winning and champagne sipping a club has done over the years.
It's about the here and now, and right now, the Detroit Red Wings deserve to be down 2-1 in their first-round playoff series with the lunch-bucket Phoenix Coyotes. The veteran Wings, who have redefined winning in the NHL's modern era, are feeling the heat.
"Oh, I feel pressure," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Monday after practice. "I feel pressure because I want to win. That's what we do here, we win. The reason we win is, you can talk about skill all you want, in the end, we normally got real good structure and we out-determine you in the end and we just keep on coming.
"So far in this series, they've done a better job of that part of the game than we have."
One can't imagine anyone in the Wings' organization feeling the same kind of pressure their counterparts in San Jose are right now. That's where history does matter. Still, in the home dressing room at Joe Louis Arena on Monday, there was a serious sense of urgency. A loss in Game 4 on Tuesday night and this one is almost over.
"We just have to bring more to the table," said veteran Wings forward Daniel Cleary. "We have to be better. Tomorrow is a must-win for us."
A "must-win." It seems a little early in the spring for that in this neck of the woods; that's usually reserved for June hockey. But Detroit's season could be in jeopardy in a hurry unless it corrects things immediately.
"The biggest issue in my mind for our team is you got to look at the guy right across from you [on the ice] and say, 'I'm going to outwork you,'" Babcock said. "I mean, it doesn't matter how much skill you have. You got to compete harder than the other guy. They won that in the second half of [Sunday] night's game."
The Coyotes haven't disappointed in that department; all season long, their most consistent asset has been their tenacity. Phoenix makes the opponent pay for every inch of the ice. It sounds cliché, but the truth is, not every team has the commitment level to pull it off every single game.
"Phoenix is a hell of a team. They did a great job in the regular season and they keep doing it in the postseason," said star Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall. "One thing you know is they never give up. They play really hard, and they play hard every shift. They have a lot of character guys in there, putting everything on the line every shift. That's something we've done in the past and we have to do again."
The Coyotes say they feed off skeptics who continue to write them off. Sure, there's more talent out West in San Jose, Chicago, Vancouver and, yes, Detroit, but that's not the only requirement for success in this league.
"There's a lot of great players around this league, but I'm a firm believer that you got to be a team to win," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Monday. "Our guys genuinely like each other, they like being a team."
A team, in the truest sense of the word. There are certainly some parallels between Phoenix and Nashville in these playoffs.
"A lot of people are like, 'They're still the Coyotes, we're going to beat 'em if we stick with it,'" Coyotes blueliner Derek Morris, a trade-deadline acquisition, said Monday after practice. "But we find ways to win by working hard and eliminating our mistakes. It sounds funny, but we just don't have a real fancy team. Everybody plays for each other and plays the way our coach wants us to play."
What's so interesting about Sunday's 4-2 loss is neither team was playing particularly well midway through the game until the Coyotes took over on sheer will. It's not every day you see that happen to the Red Wings.
"We didn't deserve to win yesterday because we didn't play well enough," said Kronwall. "Phoenix, they battle hard, you have to give them credit for that. But at the same time, shame on us for not doing it enough to win. Howie stood on his head there in the second period and came up with some huge saves that kept us in the game."
Howie, aka Calder Trophy candidate Jimmy Howard, hasn't been at his best so far in this series and that's no small factor, either.
"All the great goalies of all time, when you watch the highlights, you see them let in awful goals," said Babcock. "But it's not about that, it's about the next one, and I think Howie's been great at that. Now, it's new stakes, it's playoff time. You got to respond to that. Well, we're real comfortable that he's going to. That's not a concern for us at all."
Well, even if Babcock was concerned with his rookie goalie, he wasn't about to tell us. What he did say Monday was his team had to match the opponent's compete level.
"I don't think we can be disappointed in the results so far," said Babcock. "We can be disappointed in our execution and we can be disappointed in our battle level in spots, but not in the results so far. It's been fair. So that's a clear statement to us: We've got to be better. We understand that totally."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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