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NHL PLAYOFFS

Cup And At 'em

After Cramming at the End of Regular Season, Kings Feel Ready to Test the Red Wings

April 11, 2001|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — The Kings respect the Detroit Red Wings but don't fear them, and the difference is distinct.

The quiet confidence the Kings take into the opener of their first-round playoff series today is the same feeling that buoyed them through a tough schedule and into seventh place in the Western Conference.

They know the Red Wings had the NHL's second-best record, with 49 victories and 111 points, and they remember all too well that the Red Wings dismissed them from postseason play in the minimum four games last spring.

Yet, despite so many reasons for doubt--the Kings haven't won a playoff game since 1993 and qualified for the Stanley Cup tournament only after they'd made two major trades and mounted a frantic last-month push--players see more reasons to believe they can do it.

"Last year we lost four straight and we were just happy to get into the playoffs," center Bryan Smolinski said Tuesday, after practice at Joe Louis Arena. "This year, we fought our [butts] off to get into the playoffs. If we stop now, it's nothing. We have a goal in mind, and that's to win the first round.

"It's going to be tough. It's going to be a long series. It's not so much going out and playing harder than we've been playing--it's doing everything smarter.

"I've got a lot of good feelings. We've got a real good chance to win. It's going to be tough, no question. But as long as everyone has the same goal, we can do it."

They are so different a team than they were last spring that flipping back the calendar for reference is almost useless.

A year ago, right wing Ziggy Palffy began the playoffs with a sore shoulder. Their goaltending was tenuous. They had little grit and even less drive because they had clinched a playoff spot well before season's end.

This time, they will face Detroit with a fit and eager Palffy, a calm and steadying presence in goaltender Felix Potvin, and the inestimable mental and physical toughness of forward Adam Deadmarsh, who had seven goals and 19 points in 17 playoff games against the Red Wings when he played with the Colorado Avalanche. Defenseman Aaron Miller, who sat out the last nine games because of a sprained left wrist, might return to add poise and timely shot-blocking.

"It's not the same team that we faced last year," Detroit winger Pat Verbeek said. "They're a confident bunch and they're on a pretty good roll. They're a much better team, and we're going to have to play a lot better than we did last year to beat them. We're looking at a tough series."

Said teammate Martin Lapointe, "We have a lot of guys who have been there and have gone far in the playoffs, but the Kings are young and they're hungry. They want to beat the Red Wings. It's a big challenge for them. We can't just sit back. They'll be ready."

Detroit's biggest advantages are skill and depth, especially as embodied in centers Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Kris Draper and Igor Larionov. Coach Scotty Bowman can roll four relentless lines and send out grinders Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty without sacrificing much offensively. Those three, and fearless Swede Tomas Holmstrom, have a knack for scoring labor-intensive goals that provide an immense lift.

"They have a lot of guys over there who play a gritty game, a real hard-nosed style," Deadmarsh said. "My old team had some success against Detroit--and had some tough times too."

Aware that the Red Wings would be the oldest playoff team with an average age over 30, Bowman gave more responsibility to younger players and was rewarded with fine years from Lapointe (27 goals, 57 points) and defenseman Mathieu Dandenault (10 goals, 35 points). Defenseman Jiri Fischer also played a lot late in the season, after Chris Chelios had suffered a broken thumb.

"We had some injuries, and a lot of players stepped up and had bigger roles than before," Lapointe said. "That helped the confidence of a lot of guys and helped the team. A lot of guys have to contribute."

The Red Wings ended the season with a club-record 17-0-2 home unbeaten streak, which helped them overtake St. Louis and finish first in the Central Division.

"In the first half, we played very strong on the road and struggled at home, especially defensively," Bowman said. "In the second half, we twisted that around and played better at home than on the road. . . . We've done it a lot of ways. You always like to score a lot of goals, but not at the [expense] of playing good, strong defense."

However, the Red Wings' goaltending could be a weakness. Even though their 2.43 team goals-against average ranked eighth in the NHL--the Kings were 17th at 2.73--Chris Osgood was replaced at times by former King Manny Legace. Bowman on Tuesday wouldn't name his starter, but it's likely to be Osgood.

The Kings' starter, for the 24th consecutive game, will be Potvin.

"We've got to do the same job we've done the last two months," he said. "We've got to play our best. In the playoffs, every mistake is so much bigger. There's no room for mistakes.

"This team is ready. We have a lot of veteran guys and we've been in no-lose situations before."

Defenseman Mattias Norstrom agreed.

"This is an opponent we know we can beat," he said. "We have to be at the top of our game, but we've had success against good teams like Colorado and Dallas when we out-worked them and won the battles in the corners."

All those battles were rehearsals for what they will face today: an experienced, well-coached team and 20,000 screaming Red Wing fans. If that sounds like less than optimal conditions for ending their 12-game playoff losing streak, Coach Andy Murray thinks otherwise.

"It would be so gratifying to get a win, particularly in the first game of the series, and we're going to do what we can," he said. "And should that not happen, we're going to do what we can to win the next one. . . . Looking more for the organization than for myself, it would be great to get some wins here. We feel better about our chances now."

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