LOS ANGELES — There was no sugar-coating when the Detroit Red Wings evaluated themselves after another long, hard-fought, grinding game was knocked off the schedule.
"I think it's clear to everybody in this room that we're not playing as good as we should be,"
defenseman Brad Stuart said.
Said goaltender Chris Osgood, "We're not playing as good this year as we were last year. We're not mentally sharp as we should be."
A few minutes later Coach Mike Babcock greeted reporters in the locker room with his usual glare, as if it were early April and his team had just let one get away.
Babcock's Red Wings had, in fact, just pulled out a shootout victory against a feisty Kings team to improve to 7-1-1. They remained undefeated on the road (5-0) and were playing their first game without second-line wing Johan Franzen.
Such is the never-satisfied state of Hockeytown.
In an era where defending Stanley Cup champions' skates become heavy as cinder blocks and their shoulders hunched with expectation once the next season begins, Detroit is humming along thanks to veteran leadership and a bullet-proof lineup that only got better over the summer.
There are several theories to the Stanley Cup hangover. Teams have a short summer to prepare. They lose their hunger. The salary cap makes it difficult to retain players.
Since 2003, no defending Stanley Cup champion has won even a playoff series the next season. No team has repeated since Detroit in 1997-98.
After winning the title in 2007, the Ducks started 4-7-2 last season and didn't climb above .500 until Nov.15. A brutal season-opening trip that started in London didn't help, and the mental and physical fatigue eventually led to a first-round playoff exit.
Even that year's runner-up, Ottawa, jumped to a 15-2 start last season but fizzled out and was eliminated by Pittsburgh in the first round.
Detroit didn't have to travel overseas to start this season. Still, after a season-opening loss to lowly Toronto, the h-word was tossed around.
The Red Wings then won seven of their next eight and will take a 5-2 record in one-goal games into tonight's contest against the Ducks at Honda Center in a matchup of the past two defending champions.
The Red Wings point to the same thing when asked about coming out of the gate strong.
"We don't panic at all," Osgood said. "There's no panic on our team. We're a mature, smart group of guys.
"I don't think it's a hangover. I think every team's ready for us every night. Every time we play somebody it's like a playoff game or it seems like their coming at us really hard and playing their best game of the year. That's really the hangover for us. We have to make sure we're mentally matched to their team because they're so ready."
The addition of Marian Hossa has not only tilted the ice considerably but renewed their hunger.
Hossa spurned long-term offers, including one from Edmonton that was a reported $80 million over nine years, for a one-year, $7.45 million deal with Detroit specifically because he wanted to win a Cup.
The fact that the prolific scorer took such a risk went a long way in the locker room.
"When you get a guy who comes to your team and he's hungry and he's trying to show his team that —
that kind of energizes (everybody)," Babcock said.
Hossa's honeymoon with Detroit is going well.
His first goal was in overtime against the New York Rangers at Joe Louis Arena. He scored the deciding goal in a shootout victory against Chicago. During a five-on-three advantage Monday against the Kings, Hossa split two defenders to tie the score. It was his fifth goal in nine games.
Another offseason acquisition, backup goaltender Ty Conklin, was another shrewd move to help offset the loss of retired Dominik Hasek.
Conklin was second in the NHL in save percentage (.923) last season. He signed with Detroit for
$750,000 and can help preserve Osgood for the postseason.
It wasn't long ago that Detroit was believed to hit a wall because of the salary cap. Future Hall of
Famer Steve Yzerman retired and Brendan Shanahan went to the Rangers.
But Franzen, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg developed into terrific two-way forwards. Osgood replaced Hasek midway through the first round last season and became a postseason hero, going 14-4.
Franzen went from 10 to 27 goals last season and scored 13 goals in 16 playoff games.
Babcock, the former Ducks coach, doesn't buy into the hangover theory.
"If we came into this season and we hadn't won the Cup last year, it would be pretty hard to win this year," he said. "I don't know what that's all about. You talk about the summer being long, short.
It's the same ... I think it's just a matter getting your game together and seeing what happens.
Hopefully we stay healthy. I just think we have pretty good leadership, pretty good skill level."
There might be an added sense of urgency this season, given that Hossa, Zetterberg, Franzen and forward Mikael Samuelsson are due to become unrestricted free agents.