DALLAS - Dominant in the regular season, superb again in the postseason, the Detroit Red Wings are headed back to the Stanley Cup finals.
With gusto, too.
Just when the Red Wings lost consecutive games and were starting to look vulnerable, they bounced back strong last night in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, getting first-period goals from Kris Draper, Pavel Datsyuk and Dallas Drake on their way to knocking out the Dallas Stars, 4-1.
Now Detroit goes from worrying about becoming the third team to blow a 3-0 series lead to trying to win its fourth championship in 11 seasons. The Red Wings will face Pittsburgh and the series opens Saturday at Joe Louis Arena, with the schedule following a Saturday-Monday-Wednesday pattern.
"We responded tonight, something everyone in this dressing room should proud of," Draper said. "We're back in the Stanley Cup and it sounds great for us."
Detroit will be the home team because it had more regular-season points - most in the league, in fact. The Red Wings are the first recipient of the Presidents' Trophy to play for the Cup since they did so in 2002. That also was the last time they were in the finals. This will be their 23rd appearance.
As good as Detroit was the first 82 games, the Red Wings were even better for much of the last six weeks. They went nearly a month between losses, winning a franchise-record nine straight playoff games. It was the longest run by any team in 15 years and it put them a win away from eliminating the fifth-seeded Stars.
Dallas won Games 4 and 5 by limiting Detroit to a goal each game. The Red Wings exceeded that output in the first period last night, with all three goals coming on uncontested shots right in front of the net. Henrik Zetterberg added a shorthanded goal early in the second period and the series was all but over then.
"I thought it was a combination of us hoping to win and Detroit pushing the issue to win," Dallas coach Dave Tippett said. "I think they had a real hard focus around our net."
Drake and Zetterberg each had a goal and an assist. It was Zetterberg's 11th goal of the playoffs and Drake's first. Drake, a 16-year veteran, is headed to his first finals.
"It's a huge thrill for me," said Drake, who joked that he sat closer to Zetterberg on the bench and the scoring touch rubbed off. "It's gratifying to contribute when you can."
Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood didn't have to do much the first two periods, then got busy in the third. He passed all but one test, getting beat by Stephane Robidas during a power play.
Osgood improved to 10-2 this postseason. It was his 100th career playoff game and his 55th victory - his 48th for Detroit, passing Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk for the franchise record.
"That was something that I wanted, one of my goals among others," Osgood said. "It was a special night."
While the end was ugly, the Stars got a standing, towel-twirling ovation from fans at game's end in recognition of their best postseason since 2000, when they were defending Cup champions and made it back to the conference finals.
"We came a long way this year, but this wasn't our ultimate goal," said captain Brenden Morrow, who was doubled over on the ice at game's end. "We did make some progress. We put a lot of work into this and want to do it again. This will make us hungrier." *