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Red Wings adjust to salary cap, keep winning Cups

DETROIT -- The result was familiar.

For the fourth time in 11 seasons, the Detroit Red Wings hoisted the Stanley Cup.

The sights, sounds and context were much different than the other three titles.

Players celebrated with their children, some of whom weren't born when Detroit won back-to-back titles a decade ago, in a champagne-soaked and screaming-filled dressing room.

Third-year coach Mike Babcock enjoyed a victorious walk down a hallway at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh with his daughters and son, ages 15 to 11, and then sipped beer that probably tasted just as sweet as a bit of the bubbly.

"To have your name on the Stanley Cup, pretty special," Babcock said.

The man who signs the checks -- owner Mike Ilitch -- and the one who distributes the millions -- general manager Ken Holland -- agreed that this Cup was uniquely significant.

"Even with a salary cap, we proved we could adjust," Ilitch said after he stepped off the ice following the postgame celebration. "And our Europeans proved they were tough enough, so I don't think we'll be hearing about our team being soft anymore."

Holland does not have to hear he's fortunate to run a team that outspends the competition as Detroit did before an NHL salary cap was created three years ago thanks to the lockout.

"It's a special championship because in a cap world, everybody in the league is on equal footing," Holland said, holding an unlit cigar near center ice. "Everybody thought we used to win because we spent the most money, but we've always drafted and developed players and that is really paying off now."

The best player in the playoffs, Henrik Zetterberg, was passed up 209 times before Detroit drafted him in 1999. He broke a franchise record with 27 points in the postseason, including the series-winning goal and an assist to lift the Red Wings to a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins and earn the Conn Smythe Trophy on Wednesday night.

A third-round pick two decades ago, Nicklas Lidstrom, became the first European-born captain to win a Stanley Cup.

Johan Franzen, a third-round pick in 2004, tied Zetterberg for the league lead with 13 goals in the postseason despite missing six games with recurring headaches.

Zetterberg, Lidstrom, Franzen and four other Swedes helped Detroit retain its status as one of the NHL's top teams even though it had to slash half its payroll in 2005.

"People probably thought we were going to drop off a little bit, and the team didn't lose a beat," Lidstrom said. "I think we've just been getting better and better under Mike Babcock."

Along with wise choices in the draft and in its coaching search, Holland and his staff made an array of savvy moves to make the Red Wings successful.

Detroit's biggest decision last summer didn't create a splash at the time, but giving defenseman Brian Rafalski a $30 million, five-year deal ended up being brilliant. Signing forward Dan Cleary three years ago was a subtle move that proved to be a strong one.

Chris Osgood came back as a free agent three years ago in what became a win-win deal. Osgood replaced Dominik Hasek in Game 4 of the first round, won his first nine starts and finished 14-4 with a league-low 1.55 goals-against-average.

"I think Ozzie is a fantastic story," Babcock said. "When you pull your goalie in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, that usually means you're going fishing in about three days."

Adding Dallas Drake a year ago and Darren McCarty during the season put a touch of necessary grit.

In McCarty's case, it also generated to a feel-good story for one of a popular player who came back after drinking, divorce and bankruptcy led him to hit rock bottom last summer.

"When I lifted the Cup, the last year went through my mind," McCarty said, putting an arm around one of his children as teammates posed for pictures on the ice. "To go from where I was to be in this moment right now is unbelievable."

Rafalski enjoyed a surreal moment, too, by winning a Cup with the team he rooted for growing up in the Detroit area.

"This is what I dreamt about," he said. "I watched the tough times in the 1980s when the team was known as the Dead Wings and played in the Snorris Division. I was there in stands when they lost in the first round to San Jose in 1994.

"Then I watched them getting better from afar the rest of the 1990s and now, I'm here," he said.

The Red Wings will not likely be going anywhere soon after setting a record with 30 wins in the first half of the season, matching Montreal's record with 100 points for the eighth straight year and extending the longest active streak in sports with their 17th straight postseason appearance.

The franchise seems built to last even though predicting postseason success is probably tougher in hockey than any other sport.

Detroit's key players are under contract for at least next season, leaving only a handful of decisions to make.

After signing Babcock to a new deal, which both he and the team say could happen any day, Holland will go to work on next season and beyond.

Hasek, a 43-year-old goaltender, is an unrestricted free agent as are 46-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios and 28-year-old Brad Stuart, whose crushing checks made him a valuable acquisition at the trading deadline. Center Valtteri Filppula is a restricted free agent the Red Wings don't plan to let get away.

Ilitch and his wife also don't expect Babcock to hit the open market.

"This guy is just getting started with us," Ilitch said. "We'll get something done soon."

Then his wife chimed in.

"Don't worry about that," Marian Ilitch said.