So much for the demise of the Detroit Red Wings. Not only are they headed back to the Stanley Cup finals, they're again looking like the club that dominated the regular season and most of the playoffs.
After consecutive losses hinted at vulnerability, the Red Wings bounced back strong 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 on Monday night.
"We were relentless," Draper said. "It was just a solid first period and obviously the difference in the hockey game. ... We're back in the Stanley Cup and it sounds great for us."
Detroit led this series 3-0 before running into trouble. Now that the fear of a collapse is gone, the focus turns to winning its fourth championship in 11 seasons. The Red Wings will face the Pittsburgh Penguins starting Saturday at Joe Louis Arena, with the schedule following a Saturday-Monday-Wednesday pattern.
This will be Detroit's 23rd Cup finals, but first since 2002 despite having at least 100 points and winning the division every season since. The Red Wings lost to Anaheim in the conference finals last season.
"We were close last year and as disappointing as last year was, it was a great learning experience for everyone young and old on this team," forward Kirk Maltby said. "I think it's a big reason why we're going back this year."
Detroit had the most points in the league this season, then played even better much of the last six weeks. The Red Wings 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 clawed back by limiting Detroit to a single goal in Games 4 and 5. The Red Wings exceeded that output in the first period Monday, with all three goals coming on uncontested shots right in front of the net. Henrik Zetterberg added a short-handed 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."
Detroit's walloping knockout punch shouldn't have been a surprise. The Red Wings beat Nashville 3-0 to end the opening round, then crushed Colorado 8-2 to finish the second round.
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. Dallas dethroned reigning champion Anaheim, then ousted San Jose in the second round, finishing it with a four-overtime thriller.
"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."
Maybe the four-OT marathon sapped the Stars at the start of this series. And maybe their two-game rally sapped them for Game 6.
Dallas didn't even have a shot when the Red Wings got their first goal and they wasted their first six power plays. On one of them, they had a chance for a 5-on-3 advantage until Brad Winchester got called for boarding seconds after officials signaled for a delayed penalty.
Draper scored just 3:45 in, swatting at a rebound and seeing the puck squirt under Stars goalie Marty Turco. It didn't seem like he got his stick on the puck, prompting a video review. What they didn't see is that it went in off his face. That's why he was in the dressing room getting treated for a fat lip when his goal became official, not because of a post-goal cross-check by Dallas' Matt Niskanen that wasn't called.
"It went off my chin, it went in, who cares?" Draper said, blood still caked in his beard.
Datsyuk made it 2-0 on a power play about eight minutes later, flicking the puck over a sprawled out Turco after a defenseman lost sight of it. Later in the period, Drake planted himself a few inches from Turco and banged in his own rebound. It grew to 4-0 only 3:11 into the second period when Zetterberg stole a pass at his blue line and charged right at Turco, faking to one side and beating him on the other.
"It really hurts to think of what we could have done," Turco said. "It's the ultimate disappointment of letting the guys down. It comes with the territory. You handle it and deal with it."
Robidas scored 2:33 into the third period. Dallas showed some spunk after that, hitting hard and generating more scoring chances, but it was too little, too late.