NEWARK — Loui Eriksson knows the Red Wings. When Eriksson played for Dallas, Detroit was in the Western Conference. The Stars didn’t always fare well against the Wings.
The Swedish forward also has played internationally alongside current Detroit players Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, Gustav Nyquist, and Jonas Gustavsson. Eriksson and the Swedes won silver at the Sochi Olympics in February.
“They’ve been in these situations before,” Eriksson said of his Team Sweden teammates. “They’ve been in the playoffs. I’ve played with them and they’re good players. We have to be ready to play against them. It’s going to be a fun series.”
Entering the final week of the regular season, three teams were possible first-round opponents for the Bruins: Detroit, Columbus, and Philadelphia. Detroit was the toughest potential matchup.
The Red Wings will be at TD Garden for Game 1 on Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Game 2 Sunday at 3 p.m.
The Wings are in the playoffs for the 23d straight season. They play with pace, skill, structure, and enthusiasm. The Wings are similar to the Blackhawks. They emphasize getting the puck out of their zone quickly and putting it on the sticks of their in-stride forwards. In turn, the forwards prefer to carry the puck over the offensive blue line instead of playing dump-and-chase hockey.
“They’ve got a lot of speed, a lot of skill, and puck possession,” Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton said. “Playing World Juniors, it’s almost like a Euro-style game where they don’t really want to dump it in. When they do, they’re fast and they get on you. I think we just have to push the pace against them, instead of letting them take it to us. Obviously, be physical on them and we should be fine.”
Jimmy Howard (21-19-11, 2.66 goals-against average, .910 save percentage) is a good goalie. Kronwall (8-41—49, 24:18 average ice time per game), one of the NHL’s most punishing hitters, will be in the Norris Trophy conversation as an elite all-around defenseman. Pavel Datsyuk (17-20—37 in 45 games) is one of the league’s more dangerous players, even when hobbled, as he has been this season. The Bruins initially targeted Alfredsson (18-31—49 in 68 games) as their top-line right wing before signing Jarome Iginla.
But where the Wings have been most impressive is at overcoming injuries. Ericsson (finger), Dan Cleary (knee), Mikael Samuelsson (shoulder), and Stephen Weiss (groin) are not expected to play against the Bruins. Zetterberg (back) hasn’t resumed practicing. Gustavsson (shoulder) could return to back up Howard.
To fill in their holes, the Wings have turned to their homegrown kids. If not for injuries, Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan, and Luke Glendening might still be in Grand Rapids, Detroit’s farm club. Instead, they are playing big roles and big minutes. Nyquist scored a team-leading 28 goals in only 57 games.
The young players share Detroit’s core tenet: hockey sense.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien, who roomed with Detroit counterpart Mike Babcock during the Olympics. “We know that. They always give us some good games. Right now, it’s going to be a good seven-game series, I think.”
The Bruins lost three of the four games against the Wings this season. The Wings blew out the Bruins at Joe Louis Arena Nov. 27, 6-1.
“I know that one game in Detroit, we didn’t play very well,” Julien said. “But they’ve all been close games. They play a real solid game. They’re a team that has a very strong system. Well-coached. I think that was proven this year with all the injuries they had. To maintain their spot in the playoffs is pretty impressive. I think they deserve a lot of credit for accomplishing that. I don’t know how many teams would have been able to do that in that situation.”
The Bruins will have the upper hand. They are the better and more complete team. Tuukka Rask is sharper than Howard. Zdeno Chara is a more blanketing shutdown defenseman than Kronwall. The Bruins’ defense is deeper and more physical than Detroit’s.
Up front, the Wings will have a hard time matching the skill, strength, and ferocity of the Bruins’ four-line machine. The Bruins have three lines that possess the puck regularly, wear out defensemen with their cycle game, and create offense with skilled plays. The fourth line has a playoff history of banging bodies and changing momentum.
Assuming good health, the No. 3 line of Eriksson, Chris Kelly, and Carl Soderberg will draw shifts against Detroit’s No. 3 defensive pairing of Brian Lashoff and Jakub Kindl. Even if Detroit can keep the Bruins’ top six forwards quiet, the strength of Soderberg’s line could be too much for the Wings to handle.
But the intensity of the first round can produce upsets. The Bruins almost learned that last year against Toronto.
“It’s more of a second- or third-round matchup for sure. We know that,” Brad Marchand said. “We’re going to have a battle. They’re a great team. They beat us more this year than we beat them. So we really have to put our best game together every night.”