Wings face Red Light pressure

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 4:47 PM ET


 Below an 18-storey mural of Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman on the Cadillac Tower, the Wings' annual playoff campaign spreads across the city as tonight's opener against the Nashville Predators approaches.

 Turn On The Red Light is this year's message in print ads, pole signs and merchandise. Apt, that.

 A year ago, the Wings didn't turn on the red light often enough and were swept in four games by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, becalmed that campaign beneath banners proclaiming Red Storm Rising.

 Despite a 2.08 goals-against average, goalie Curtis Joseph took heat from people who should know better. So did Dave Lewis, whose first year as successor to the legendary Scotty Bowman wound up with an even sharper can't-win component to his first head coaching assignment.

 Things are different this year. Lewis is now two seasons removed from the obvious comparisons to his predecessor.

 The Wings didn't scoot through to win the Presidents' Cup, they fought through everything from serious and untimely injuries to a three-man goaltending quagmire that ended only when unretired Dominik Hasek was injured, with Joseph not far behind in the stroll to sick bay.

 Be sure of this: Everyone who was around last season has not forgotten what a hot goaltender can wreak upon a team's intentions of hoisting the Stanley Cup. Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere had the playoff spring of his life in helping the Ducks to the final.

 It is not lost on goal-scorers who are paid millions of dollars to solve such problems but didn't get it done. They are under Turn On The Red Light pressure inwardly and outwardly to win their fourth Stanley Cup in eight years.

 Nashville? All they have to do in their first Stanley Cup appearance is play the best they can and see what happens. Those who say Nashville's Tomas Vocoun is not J.S. Giguere should be reminded neither was J.S. Giguere at this time last year. It was only after their first-round series started that his uncanny play came to the fore during a groove that took his club to the seventh game of the Cup final against New Jersey.

 They are equally aware their Presidents' Trophy makes them the best team in hockey after 82 games but means absolutely nothing now. They, and two-thirds of the other teams that have won the wire-to-wire Oscar, failed to secure the big bauble afterward.

 There will be upsets through the long playoff season, to be sure. All you can deal with at this point is what is known. In this case, it's that the Predators played the Wings to a standoff in six regular season games.

 But the heat is on now and it takes a pretty expansive imagination (read Vocoun miracles) to see the Predators making any kind of series of their first postseason venture.

 People who saw the Wings taking a backward step with the loss of the estimable Sergei Fedorov to free agency and Anaheim this season failed to take into account the Wings were reloading.

 Despite a run of injuries that required regular callups from their American League team, Detroit managed to mount the sole home-ice advantage their entire playoffs because they are a better team this season.

 Better, because of the development of Pavel Datsuyk and Henrik Zetterberg up front, the addition of Robert Lang to the attack and a solid defence made even better with the looming presence of large Derien Hatcher, whose season-long injury recuperation leaves him relatively fresh for the playoff marathon.

 Goal remains a question, with Manny Legace starting tonight while Joseph is in reserve.

 More appropriate is the 2004 motto. The Wings have to Turn On The Red light at the other end with authority.


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