BOSTON — “Let’s just play.”
It’s a credo the Bruins have abided by throughout the course of this season. Don’t think about the past, don’t worry about the future, just go out there and play our game. It’s something Head Coach Claude Julien has said countless times, and it’s something the Bruins’ dressing room leaders have repeated time and time again.
Now, it’s something the Bruins’ opponent in the first round of the playoffs are running with, too.
The Detroit Red Wings have had no choice but to go out there and “just play” this season — at least, if they wanted a chance to compete in the postseason for the 23rd consecutive year. They have sustained injuries to key players, including forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, as well as defenseman Jonathan Ericsson.
Datsyuk is back. Zetterberg and Ericsson are hoping to return for Round 2, if the Red Wings make it there.
And in the meantime, the young players who have stepped up to the plate in their absence have done just fine.
“We talk a lot about the past in the media — we never talk about the past in our dressing room,” said Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock. “It’s about the present. It’s about right here, right now, and we have a good group of kids. We have good veteran leadership, but our kids have played really well — given us the energy, and they’ve come here and they’ve replaced people and they’ve earned jobs.”
“It’s not like they’re going back to the minors; they’re here. They took jobs, and they’re going to keep jobs. And this is a group here we’re going ahead with now. Obviously, some of the guys that are injured, like Zetterberg, I’m sure can still get a spot on the team. Like Ericsson. I’m sure. But that’s just part of it — they’re not here, [so] what are we going to do about it?”
Added Julien, “They’ve got some younger bodies — well obviously, some good players [have gotten injured], but let’s not kid ourselves — they’ve replaced them with some pretty good young ones as well. So they’re still the same. They love their puck management, play a good defensive game, they’ve got layers and they certainly have guys that can score some goals for them, and that’s been proven there in the last little while.”
“They’ve had a lot of injuries this year, but it’s given a lot of those young players, I think, [a chance] to develop. I’ve seen a lot of those young players get better as the year has gone on here, so again, it’s going to be a real tough opponent for us.”
Among Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco, only Nyquist has been to the postseason before. The Red Wings have two young D's in Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith who are playing very big roles with very little playoff experience.
Sound familiar? It is.
Like the Bruins, the Red Wings are confident in sending their young guns out to play prominent roles, and those young guns have responded admirably. Nyquist has led the team in goals this season (28) and, with 48 points, comes in just behind team leaders Daniel Afredsson (49) and Niklas Kronwall (49).
DeKeyser has played big minutes this year, averaging 22:38 in his first full NHL season, while Smith has been paired with Kronwall and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future while Ericsson recovers from a hand injury that is likely to keep him out until the second round.
The younger players have done the work to get the Red Wings into the postseason, despite a grind-it-out battle for the second wild card spot as the regular season came to a close. Now, they get to reap the rewards as they play big minutes in the postseason.
And they’ve managed to earn that reward by doing something very similar to what the Bruins have done all season: just play their game.
“Have we talked about the fact that [the Bruins] won the Presidents’ Trophy and we didn’t? No,” Babcock said. “We know who we’re playing. We played them four times this year. We’re well aware of who were playing. We’re excited about our opportunity.”
“We’re big believers in the group we have. We think we’re detail-oriented, we think we compete. When I watch the NHL playoffs right now and I see all the goals going in and I watch all the turnovers, I ask, ‘What’s going on? Settle down and play. Just play. Don’t be thinking too much. Let’s get out there and play.”
Darren Helm Back in the Mix
The Red Wings have welcomed plenty of up-and-comers to the fold for this postseason, but they are welcoming one veteran back, too — with pleasure.
Darren Helm has been with the Red Wings for parts of seven seasons, and although Detroit has advanced to 23 consecutive playoff berths, Helm has missed the last two due to injury, and he played in just one postseason game in 2011-12.
When he hits the ice at TD Garden on Friday night, it will be just his second postseason game since 2011.
“There’s been lots of ups and downs the last couple of years, and this year as well,” Helm said. “I’ve gone through the last 10 or 12 games in a row here, so I feel pretty good and confident.”
Last year, it was a back injury that limited Helm to a single game, and this year, he was hampered by back, shoulder and groin injuries as well as a concussion.
Now, though, the page has been turned, and he is ready to get back to it on Friday.
“Helmer’s got to play a simple, hard game,” Babcock said. “When these players get injured — and I remember, when [Patrice] Bergeron was concussed, when he came back, he wore his number and he was the same guy, but he wasn’t the same player. When you’re hurt for a long period of time, it’s hard to be the same player without a summer to condition, to get in shape, to top your game, and so is Helmer capable of that? We’re going to watch and see.”
As evidenced by the Bruins’ well-distributed scoring attack this season, having a strong third line that can provide supplemental scoring is critical. If the Red Wings have their third-line center healthy, Babcock believes it will make a huge difference in this series.
“I’ve always told everybody he’s the best third line center in hockey,” Babcock said. “And that’s a bold statement. You got to be that. You got to be in condition to do that, you got to be healthy to do that. So you watch.”
Smith Brothers Ready to Face Off
According to Boston’s Reilly Smith, he’s taking a break from his daily texts with his brother — Detroit’s Brendan Smith — for the next couple of weeks.
According to Brendan, though, Reilly is just trying to throw everybody off.
“Yeah, we are a little bit,” Brendan said, when asked if he and his brother are on speaking terms. “Not as much as normal, I’d say. I guess the questions and the answers between me and him are a lot less, but we’re still talking a bit. But like he says, he’ll get you guys on the rise by saying there’s no communication.”
This marks the sixth time in the history of the Bruins that a brother has faced a brother in a playoff series. This week, Reilly said he always dreamed of suiting up for the playoffs with his big bro — whether they were on the same team, or whether they were going up against each other.
The Smith brothers have come a long way from their basement battles as kids back in Toronto. Back then, they used to face off against each other until their parents demanded a ceasefire, fearing serious bodily injury.
“There was always, like, some scars here and there, and some chipped teeth,” Brendan recalled. “I think the thing that I remember was always the teeth. We were young, so teeth just grew back, but now if you lose them, they’re toast.”
Now, it’s the same thing — more brotherly battles — just with slightly higher stakes. Reilly plays on Boston’s second line alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, while Brendan plays on Detroit’s top defensive pairing alongside Niklas Kronwall.
Both are young players who have been thrust into the limelight this season, and both have conquered the challenge.
“I think getting minutes has helped him,” Babcock said of Brendan. “The biggest thing with Smitty is, like past young players, is not trying to do too much. And the question I always ask him is, who has the puck when you’re done with it? It’s real simple — I don’t care if it’s playing soccer, playing basketball, playing football — if the other team has the puck when you’re done with it, or the ball when you’re done with it, it’s probably not a good thing.”
“You got to take care of the puck, and to be a good D man, you got to be patient. You got to take what’s given.”
Right now, the brothers may be temporary enemies, but this summer, when Reilly found out he’d been traded from Dallas to Boston, his brother was there for him — just as his brother — to offer support.
“The first time we saw [the trade news], it was on Twitter, which was funny,” Brendan said. “We were just on the couch and [saw], ‘Reilly Smith’s traded for Tyler Seguin,’ and Loui Eriksson — you guys know the whole deal. We were kind of thrown off, but then when we thought about it, we thought it was a great fit for him and that he can earn his position and go in and play hard.”
“I knew growing up he worked really hard in the offseason, and I wouldn’t say he was nervous, but he was really adamant on going to camp really in good shape and trying to earn a good spot on the team, and look what he’s done. He’s done a great job, and you’ve seen him, you guys have talked to him — he’s a mature kid for his age, so it’s been a testament to him and I have to give him a lot of credit.”
Now, the big question: Who are Mom and Dad rooting for? And more importantly, will Mrs. Smith be donning a half-Red Wings, half-Bruins jersey?
“Yeah, I don’t know if you guys saw [Drew] Miller’s mom — she had the Blues and the Red Wings [split jersey],” Brendan said. “So [my mom] is really crafty like that. She might do that. A bunch of the boys are like, ‘Hey, where are your parents staying? Oh, at Reilly’s place? Oh, so they’re cheering for the Bruins.’ But I don’t know. We’ll see what they do, and it looks like they might have something creative where it might be half and half.”
Red Wings Projected Game 1 Lineup vs. Bruins
Johan Franzen - Pavel Datsyuk - Justin Abdelkader
Tomas Tatar - Riley Sheahan - Gustav Nyquist
Tomas Jurco - Darren Helm - Daniel Alfredsson
Drew Miller - Luke Glendening - David Legwand
Niklas Kronwall - Brendan Smith
Kyle Quincey - Danny DeKeyser
Brian Lashoff - Jakub Kindl
Goaltender: Jimmy Howard
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