- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

PITTSBURGH | Should the Detroit Red Wings win one of their next three games, it will be Nicklas Lidstrom who skates over to commissioner Gary Bettman for a quick photo op before lifting the 35-pound Stanley Cup toward the sky in celebration.

It would be a significant event in NHL history. There is the symbolism of Lidstrom becoming the first European-born and trained captain to lead his team to a Cup victory, but it goes deeper than that.

The Red Wings are a team dominated by European players. For years, there has been a perception in the NHL that franchises could not rely on a team full of players from across the pond in the playoffs. It is certainly a fading stereotype, but it still exists.

Should the Red Wings win one more game - their first chance is tonight at Joe Louis Arena - it should be gone for good.

“I think the perception of European players was they were skilled but not into the physical play,” Washington Capitals captain Chris Clark said. “I think a lot of that has changed in the past five or 10 years. Maybe the perception hasn’t caught up to the reality, but I think there are plenty of European players who play that ‘North American’ style to a T.”

The Red Wings began to debunk the myth 12 years ago. Detroit’s team in 1997 had the famed “Russian Five.” Toss in Lidstrom and six of the top 10 scorers for that Cup winner were Europeans.

Despite the growing number of European players in the league over the next decade, that stereotype never really went away. When the Anaheim Ducks beat the Red Wings last season in the Western Conference finals, pundits pointed to the Ducks’ physical brand of hockey and North American-dominated roster as reasons why.

This year’s Red Wings team should put all of that to rest. Detroit was the dominant team in the NHL this season, and were it not for a heavy dose of injuries on the blue line in February, the Red Wings might have challenged the record for points in a season.

Nine of the team’s top 11 scorers are European. When everyone is healthy, the team’s top six forwards and half of its defensemen are not from North America.

And don’t think these Red Wings play some “soft” style of hockey, either. Niklas Kronwall has been the breakout defenseman in these playoffs because of his highlight-reel open-ice hits. Tomas Holmstrom relishes the physical play in front of the net and has become the game’s best at parking himself there.

Johan Franzen leads the league with 13 postseason goals, and he gets many of his doing the same duty as Holmstrom. All of that can be immortalized if Lidstrom lifts the Cup.

“I try not to think about it. It has been brought up a lot from the media,” Lidstrom said. “I’m trying to think of it more as having another chance to win the Cup. It is something I try to push back and not think about too much.”

That has plenty of significance in the District as well. The Red Wings may be the most European-dominated team in the league, but the Caps might be second on that list. Six of their top eight scorers this season were European, and that doesn’t include the contributions from trade acquisitions Sergei Fedorov and Cristobal Huet.

There were points this season when the Caps would sport an all-European look on their top two lines.

“I don’t think it is an issue with our team,” Clark said. “We have a good mix of players from a lot of places. It showed in the playoffs. Guys like Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom showed they can play well in that situation.”

Indeed they did. After Semin and Backstrom were held scoreless in the first three games by the bruising play of the Philadelphia Flyers, they combined for seven goals in the final four games of the series.

Then there is Alex Ovechkin, who obliterates any perception or stereotype. He is just as comfortable going through opposing players as skating around them. He loves to level foes as much as he loves to score on them.

“It is not a matter of just having a number of European players - it is who they are,” former Caps defenseman Calle Johansson said. “Guys like Ovechkin, Backstrom - they love the game. They have a pride when they play. Fedorov has been there and done it before. Those guys aren’t like European players who came over here to collect the money and run. They really have a pride in what they do.

“It doesn’t really matter where you are from as long as you have that pride.”

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