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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS / SPECIAL PULLOUT SECTION

Charmed?

Detroit Primed to Make a Run at Third Consecutive Title

April 21, 1999|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — Wendel Clark hasn't stopped smiling yet. Who can blame him?

After being rescued from the oblivion of Tampa Bay and delivered to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in a deadline-day trade, Clark still can't believe his good fortune.

"It's a great bonus to come from Tampa here and be put in this position, to be on a team you know can do it because it has done it before," the rugged left wing said. "It's like walking into the locker room at the All-Star game. There's definitely great talent in this dressing room."

Goaltender Bill Ranford, acquired from the Lightning the same day, still feels like a kid in a candy store. He can hardly believe that the defensive corps helping protect his net includes veterans Ulf Samuelsson, Chris Chelios, Larry Murphy and Nicklas Lidstrom, as impressive as any quartet in the NHL.

"No doubt, they're great defensemen. And we've got some pretty good forwards, too," Ranford said, smiling at his understatement. "I just came here with the attitude, 'Let's start over.' It was an opportunity for me to further my career. I think in Tampa, I was done. It was just a disaster. I've got three wins here--it took me a whole year to do that there."

Ranford, Clark, Samuelsson and Chelios, Detroit's deadline-day additions, brought with them 3,468 games of NHL experience, five Stanley Cup triumphs and an unmistakable hunger to be winners again.

"They've been a godsend for us," associate coach Barry Smith said. "They picked us up emotionally and on the ice. They've helped us leadership-wise, and they bring enthusiasm. But the team picture doesn't win you the Cup. It's how you play."

They have played well, reviving the slumping Red Wings, who are building up strength for the long playoff haul, which begins tonight against the Mighty Ducks at Joe Louis Arena.

Although Colorado got a lift by acquiring feisty winger Theo Fleury from Calgary Feb. 28, the Red Wings' bold moves might have trumped them. With skill, depth and experience at every position, the Red Wings reestablished themselves as Cup favorites, although they know nothing has been won yet.

"Maybe on paper we're favorites, when you look at our lineup, but that's just people predicting," center Kris Draper said. "That has never come out of this room. Obviously, we have confidence, but we always had confidence. . . . You have to go out and work hard. You can't just say we look good on paper and expect to win."

Chelios, for years the Red Wings' archenemy, has endeared himself to Detroit fans by throwing his 37-year-old body in front of shots and sticking up for his new teammates in scrums. The bridge of his nose has fresh stitches, evidence of his aggressive, take-no-prisoners style, but those are beauty marks for Chelios. He's delighted to be playing again at his favorite time of the year--the playoffs.

"Even from the day of the trade, every game has been important," said Chelios, who played few meaningful games the last two seasons while the Chicago Blackhawks missed the playoffs. "We were trying to catch Colorado and then just solidify our playoff position, so every game has meant something. I'm excited to be back in the playoffs. Everybody knows that's what it's all about, to go after the Stanley Cup."

Samuelsson's Detroit debut was delayed until April 9 because of a broken foot, but he didn't mind the wait.

"I'm lucky," he said. "Every game has been fun."

The Red Wings were a good team before their stunning trades, but they had gone stale. They have played a lot of hockey over the years, advancing to the Western Conference finals the last four seasons and playing 79 playoff games, the equivalent of almost another full season.

That grind took its toll on a largely veteran team. The Red Wings flailed through a 0-6-1 streak in December and a 1-5-2 slump in early March, unable to score, protect leads or find motivation.

"We came out in some games and were flat," Draper said. "We'd have a couple of good periods, but we didn't play 60-minute games."

General Manager Ken Holland was reluctant to tinker too much with his team, but he realized he had to change the mix. He put out trade feelers during general managers' meetings, but got no bites. As the March 23 deadline approached, he wondered if a deal would materialize.

"I couldn't have told you [the night before when] I went to bed, that all of this would happen," he said. "Things started falling into place and I kind of went with the flow."

That flow brought the previously untouchable Chelios from Chicago, Ranford and Clark from Tampa Bay, and Samuelsson from the New York Rangers, with the loss from the roster of only backup goalie Kevin Hodson and defenseman Anders Eriksson. The Red Wings immediately took off on an 8-0-1 run and finished with a 9-2-1 surge, earning the third playoff seeding in the West.

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