Overlooking Detroit's Rafalski an easy thing to do
Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski (28) checks Penguins forward Gary Roberts, right, into the boards during the second period in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup hockey final at Mellon Arena.
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He's not imposing at 5 feet 10, 191 pounds.
His friendly face doesn't immediately evoke the image of a hockey player.
And it seems like he has spent most of his NHL career in the shadow of a future Hall of Fame defenseman.
Not that he minds one bit.
"Hey, it's about winning," said Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski, who has no points against the Penguins going into Game 4 tonight of the Stanley Cup final. "I've been fortunate to be on some good teams. At the end of the day, if you come out on top, that's what matters."
Rafalski is in the Stanley Cup final for the fourth time. He won the trophy twice with New Jersey.
Although he is part of a five-man unit Detroit has deployed throughout most of the playoffs that gets a lot of attention, he is easily the most overlooked, mostly because he is paired with Norris Trophy favorite and future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom. And probably also because the forward line of that unit -- Tomas Holmstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg -- earns a lot of notice.
The Penguins, though, are keenly aware of Rafalski.
"He's a good puck-moving defenseman," Penguins center Sidney Crosby said. "He skates well. He's not the biggest guy, but I think he's smart and plays his position well. So I think he probably makes up for his size with how well he plays his position, and probably helps anybody he plays with to be that much more solid."
Rafalski and Lidstrom would seem to be in contention to be considered the top defensive pairing in the NHL.
"That's for you guys to talk about," Rafalski said. "I'm just out there doing my job. It's just a pleasure to play with him. I've had an opportunity to play with a lot of Hall of Famers in my career, and it's something special."
Before Lidstrom, there was Scott Stevens in New Jersey before Stevens retired four years ago.
Rafalski was a late bloomer. After playing college hockey at Wisconsin, he spent four seasons overseas before signing with New Jersey as a free agent in 1999 as a 25-year-old.
Playing a lot beside Stevens -- like Lidstrom a team captain and a sure Hall of Famer -- Rafalski blossomed into a solid defenseman, one so steady that he played in 223 consecutive games before missing eight in February and March because of a groin strain.
"You've got Hall of Famers back there, so it's a cornerstone to build around," he said. "Those two are different style of players, but both are in the top two or three at what they do, as far as Scotty being a physical, dominating defenseman, and Nick dominates through controlling the game."
The 34-year-old native of Dearborn, Mich., got to line up alongside Lidstrom after he signed as a free agent with his hometown team last summer "to be in this situation, with all these guys."
Rafalski had a career-high 13 goals in the regular season and tied a career high with 55 points. His plus-minus rating of plus-27 was third among NHL defensemen -- Lidstrom was first at plus-40.
It was a smooth adjustment after learning to play next to Stevens.
"Scotty used to stand up a lot. Nick's very good at getting in the gap," Rafalski said. "So I read off them.
"It makes things easy out there because Nick understands the game so well. You don't have to do it all. If there's no play, you don't have to force it. Just slide it over to Nick and he'll find it."
Lidstrom, 38, also found it an easy transition.
"It's been working out well," he said. "We're similar in how we play. We like to hang onto the puck when we can. He's always open. He's always there for you. He's a real strong skater, whether he's going back for the puck for you or joining the rush."
It also helps that coach Mike Babcock has borrowed a page from the Russians and used Lidstrom and Rafalski in part of five-man group a lot, something that is made feasible because the Red Wings have gone primarily with three lines this postseason.
"It gives us more familiarity," Rafalski said. "Guys know where guys are going to be. Familiarity really helps. If we can go out there in five-man units, guys can fill in offensively, defensively, cover for each other. If you can't communicate, if it's too loud, you can rely on that."
First Published May 31, 2008 12:00 am