JANUARY 28, 2008
THERE IS A
LAUGHABLY MISGUIDED notion that just because Nicklas Lidstrom is the best
player on the NHL's best team, leads all defensemen in scoring, is the league's
top plus-minus player, has won five of the past six Norris Trophies, has missed
only 22 games in more than 15 seasons, rarely takes penalties despite playing
more than 27 minutes per game and keeps his locker obsessively neat in an
otherwise Delta House dressing room that he is perfect. Yet sometimes, perhaps
as frequently as Halley's Comet, Lidstrom does err. Consider the final minute
of a Jan. 8 game against Colorado. The Avalanche, goaltender out, was pressing
for a tying score. Lidstrom had the puck near the Detroit crease and blindly
flung it toward the center of the zone, directly onto the stick of Colorado
defenseman John-Michael Liles. Now Lidstrom always goes tape-to-tape, but to a
teammate. This time he would have sworn he was passing to his defense partner,
Brian Rafalski, whom he was certain had yelled for the puck. "I heard
Raffi, or who I thought was Raffi, say, 'Hep' or 'Hey, hey,' " Lidstrom
said. "That was a smart play by them."
After the 1-0 Red
Wings victory, Colorado winger Andrew Brunette, who was on the ice at the time
of Lidstrom's errant pass, denied that the Avalanche had engaged in any
gamesmanship. (Although, when the player with the NHL's highest hockey IQ
remarks on your savvy, you should take it as a compliment, deserved or not.)
Lidstrom's gaffe, meanwhile, became a topic of discussion in the Detroit
"His is almost
a game of perfect," general manager Ken Holland said. "He makes a bad
pass the way he did in the game tonight, and the coaches will talk about it for
days because it's something that you just don't see."
THE RED WINGS
trashed the idea of NHL parity by winning 30 of 41 games, the best first-half
mark since the league adopted an 82-game schedule before the 1995-96 season.
They were 35-10-4 through Jan. 19, a cushy 13 points ahead of the Dallas Stars,
who had the second-best record in the Western Conference. "This team is
playing just as good defensively as the one in 2002," says Lidstrom, 37,
who won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring for helping Detroit to its third
Stanley Cup in six years. "That team had more talent up front with all the
high-profile players, but this team can have just as much success with the way
we're playing now." The Red Wings lead the NHL in goal differential, goals
against, shots, shots against and face-off percentage, so their first-half MVP
was 1) left wing Henrik Zetterberg or 2) goaltender Chris Osgood.
Or so some said.
The beat writer for The Detroit News named Zetterberg, who at the midpoint of
the season led the team with 25 goals and 52 points. At the same time a fan
poll on Fox Sports Net Detroit overwhelmingly favored Osgood, who was 18-2-1
with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage while splitting
the job with Dominik Hasek. That Lidstrom, who is merely having another
immaculate season and is on pace for his standard 60-plus points, was not
deemed most valuable may be because he is among the Red Wings' least voluble, a
lead-by-example captain who rarely raises his voice in the locker room.
Nick's the MVP of the league," coach Mike Babcock says. "Since I got
here [in 2005], every one of his defense partners, [Mathieu] Schneider,
[Andreas] Lilja, [Danny] Markov, now Rafalski, has had a career year. How can
you not? Other defensemen have some dimensions to their games, but Nick has all
the dimensions. The only thing he doesn't do is cross-check you in the face, so
he doesn't take penalties. He's on the ice all the time."
Like the elements
of modern Swedish design, Lidstrom's game is all clean lines and efficiency,
nothing ornate like a Bobby Orr end-to-end rush or a Scott Stevens open-ice
hit. "Stevens had as many in a game as I might have in a season," says
Lidstrom, who ranked 514th in the NHL in hits.
Stevens or me, he doesn't need his daily dose of hitting," says Denis
Potvin, the New York Islanders Hall of Fame defenseman who is now a color
commentator on Florida Panthers games. "Lidstrom doesn't have an angry bone
in his body."
There is no better
exemplar of modern, sanitized hockey than a player who arrives at the arena
wearing suits that have fewer wrinkles than a freshly Botoxed face and who,
after a game, hangs up his own pants, lays his two sets of gloves on the top
shelf of his stall and places foam pads from his skates side by side in the far
left corner of the lower shelf. If you like his locker, Babcock enthuses,
you'll love how precisely he tapes the knob of his stick.