DETROIT – Wings coach Mike Babcock liked the team that fell to San Jose in five games in last year’s Western Conference semifinals.
This year’s team hasn’t changed much, from a year ago but Babcock likes them better.
“I like our team better,” Babcock said Wednesday after practice at Joe Louis Arena. “We’re a better team. We’re deeper and we play harder.
“Not that we didn’t push it going into the playoffs last year,” Babcock continued. “We had this unbelievable run, but I just think the growth in our team has been substantial. Even though we didn’t like our team a lot at times this winter, I still think the individual growth of our players is significant.”
This year’s team eliminated the Phoenix Coyotes convincingly in four games.
Last year’s squad needed seven games to dispose of the Coyotes. That lengthy series forced the Wings to open the next round in San Jose just a day after advancing.
Detroit fell to San Jose last year in five games. All four of the Sharks’ wins were by one goal. The Wings’ lone win, which came in Game 4, was a 7-1 blowout.
“We’re a better team than we were last year,” Wings forward Danny Cleary said. “We’re looking for a little redemption. We all know the feeling we had when we lost. We want to keep going here. We’ve got a good team. We believe we got a real good chance.”
Detroit added just two new players this offseason – forward Mike Modano and defenseman Ruslan Salei.
“To me, (Darren) Helm and (Justin) Abdelkader are significant factors on our team,” Babcock said. “The way they play has helped Patty Eaves become a better player, (Drew) Miller become a better player. To me we’re deeper that way.
“I also think (Todd) Bertuzzi, as good a playoff as he had for us last year, is playing better than a year ago,” Babcock continued. “To have people spread out over three to four lines makes us deeper.”
Detroit isn’t making excuses, but the quick turnaround to start the series with San Jose didn’t help the Wings last year.
“You can say it’s not, we’re professionals, and should’ve been able to handle it,” Wings defenseman Brad Stuart said. “But at the end of the day it did drain us a little bit I thought we battled as hard as we could, but by the end of the series we were pretty drained.
“A lot of that had to do with going seven games (against Phoenix) and not getting any rest in between,” Stuart continued. “It’s going to be a big difference this year.”
The Wings eliminated Phoenix last Wednesday, which gave them eight straight days between games. It’s their longest break since 1999, when they had nine days between games following their first-round sweep of Anaheim. They lost to Colorado in the next round, winning the first two games before losing four in a row.
“It was pretty tough going in after one day off,” Wings forward Darren Helm said. “Maybe we didn’t have quite as much juice as we needed. We’re not using that as an excuse. This year we got four wins and got some rest so hopefully that will be a difference.”
“There’s always a fine line in how much rest we want,” Babcock said. “We’ve all been antsy, we watched a lot of hockey. When you’re not playing all you do is watch. It’s been fun that way, in saying that we needed the time to get our guys healthy. You might have a little rust early. We take that over getting beat up over the last while.”
This year’s series opens Friday in San Jose with Game 2 taking place Sunday. Games 3 and 4 are in Detroit Wednesday and Friday.
“We’re rested,” Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. “It’s a confident group in this dressing room. We can pull some inspiration from last year, them ending our season in the second round. We’re going to have to go out there and just play simple Friday night, not try to get ahead of ourselves.”
This will be the fifth time Detroit and San Jose have met in the postseason. The teams have split the other four series.
“(Redemption is) on the back of everybody’s mind that was there,” Cleary said. “No one feels good about getting knocked out, no matter what round it is. We go back-to-back Cup finals and then lose in the second round in a series that, they played better for sure. but there was a lot of one-goal games, a lot of missed opportunities. It’s a good opportunity for us to prove ourselves again. They’re a good team. It’s going to be a good series.”
San Jose won the season series with the Wings, 3-1, outscoring Detroit 15-11. The Sharks have won seven of the last nine meetings between the teams.
“I don’t think you need any extra motivation,” Wings forward Johan Franzen said. “Just winning a series is motivation enough. We played them a lot the last few years. It’s always a good battle, fun games.”