Babcock leads Wings to post-Games surge

Down time has been a precious commodity for Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock this season, a thing to savour and make the most of on the rare occasions some can be found.

Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock watches from the bench in the first period of their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in a preseason hockey game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit

Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock watches from the bench in the first period of their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in a preseason hockey game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit

Down time has been a precious commodity for Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock this season, a thing to savour and make the most of on the rare occasions some can be found.

That’s why his day off Monday was refreshingly good for the soul. The sun was out, the thermometer read 23 C, and he actually had a chance to be with wife Maureen and their children Allie, Michael and Taylor.

“It was fantastic,” said Babcock, whose hands have been full coaching Canada to Olympic gold and guiding the Red Wings back to the NHL playoffs despite an overwhelming spate of early injuries.

“What happens when you’re coaching your team and you’re coaching the Olympic team is you don’t take any time away from your own team, you take time away from your family,” Babcock continued on a conference call Tuesday. “There’s no question, I’m not running for parent of the year this year. I haven’t been at all my kids’ events or done that like I’d like to do, and dropped the ball that way.”

It hasn’t all been all bad for his family, which got to experience the Vancouver Olympics in a way few other spectators can, but missing out on time with his loved ones only added to Babcock’s burden.

As if trying to keep the Red Wings — who were down eight regulars at one point — afloat in the Western Conference wasn’t work enough, he was also busy preparing the Canadian team to chase a gold medal that had nearly become a national obsession.

And even after Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner against the United States clinched the Olympic title, there was barely a moment to relax and enjoy it. Canada’s victory came on Feb. 28; the next day he coached Detroit to a 3-2 win at Colorado.

“After the Olympics we had four (games) in (seven days), something ridiculous, and I’m no different than anyone else, you’re worn right out,” said Babcock, who put an emphasis on exercise and sleeping as much as possible to keep his energy up.

“Being fresh is so important. That’s one of the things Scotty Bowman always said to me, ’Mikey, got to make sure you’re fresh.’ So I’ve done everything I can to get propped up and get ready to go and we’re looking for a run.”

Another shot at the Stanley Cup didn’t look likely before the Games.

Seemingly sapped by long-term injuries to key contributors like Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula, Dan Cleary, Niklas Kronwall and Jason Williams plus the cumulative effect of deep playoff runs the last three seasons, the Red Wings stumbled to a 4-5-6 mark in their 15 games before the break.

That they tied San Jose with an NHL-high eight players — including star Russian centre Pavel Datsyuk and Swedes Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Kronwall — bound for Vancouver wouldn’t help.

But rather than a post-Olympic hangover, the Red Wings have experienced a post-Games renaissance, going 13-3-2 since the NHL season resumed to clinch the franchise’s 19th straight playoff berth.

The 2008 Stanley Cup champions and 2009 finalists look dangerous again.

“A couple things happened to us at the Olympics — Pavel’s team lost out early and the Swedes lost out early, giving them more rest than the teams that went to the final,” said Babcock. “That was a positive even though in their mind it was negative. It was good for our team and we’ve been able to get on a run.

“We’ve got a proud group here, I think we could have easily been derailed if we didn’t have good leadership and our best players didn’t care a lot, but they found a way to dig in.”

Still, these playoffs will be different than other recent runs for the Red Wings, who were sixth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference before Tuesday’s play.

With three games left, beginning Wednesday against visiting Columbus, Detroit is likely to finish no higher than fifth and will open the playoffs on the road.

That, combined with the toll of the Olympics and playoffs past, leaves some wondering how much the Red Wings have left in the tank.

“We went to the final four three years in a row and the final two years in a row — that wears on you, I don’t care who you are,” said Babcock. “You don’t have the same time to recover. Guys are training full out and you’re still playing games. It makes a huge difference in the pop in your legs, and the overall drive.

“Saying all that, I think our guys are engaged now and have done a pretty good job. It will be interesting to see how we do.”

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