The Detroit Red Wings have been the gold standard in the NHL for more than a decade, something not lost on the rival Chicago Blackhawks.

This current collection of Blackhawks has been building toward trying to meet that standard, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 and knowing that knocking off the Red Wings for the first time in the playoffs as a group and reaching the Western Conference Finals for the third time in five seasons would be a major step forward.

When the focus is narrowed to just the 2012-13 season, though, the roles for these two franchises are reversed. The Blackhawks started the season on an incredible run and have been the pace-setter for the entire campaign, capturing the Presidents' Trophy and cementing their place as the team to beat in the Western Conference by dispatching the Minnesota Wild in five games despite members of the club admitting it wasn't their best work.
This has been a different season for the Red Wings. It began with decreased expectations from people outside the dressing room, and a slow start seemed to confirm what pundits thought a Nicklas Lidstrom-less Detroit team would look like.

That said, the Red Wings have been steadily improving, and that process has been expedited in the past month. After his team smoked the top-seeded Blackhawks 4-1 at United Center on Saturday to even this Western Conference Semifinals series at one game apiece, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock offered something pretty telling -- he said the Blackhawks started the year as a good team and they're a good team now, while his Wings are a good team now but were not one earlier in the season.

"I don't know what Chicago started and Anaheim started -- I think it was like 20-2 or something ridiculous," Babcock said Sunday at Joe Louis Arena. "A good month for us was one over [.500]. We tried to do that each month and keep hanging in there to give us a chance to get better. Our guys have gotten better. You have to give them credit.

"We've had great growth from within -- I think the most since I've been in the National Hockey League, for sure. That might just be because we've got a different type of team. We've got a whole bunch of kids, so there is a chance for growth."

The Red Wings are still built around star players -- captain Henrik Zetterberg and center Pavel Datsyuk chief among them -- but "the kids" have earned plenty of attention during the Stanley Cup Playoffs because of their rapid development. Babcock said after Game 7 of the first round, when the Red Wings upset second-seeded Anaheim, that his club wouldn't have been good enough to beat the Ducks in a series earlier in the year.

After splitting the first two games in Chicago, Detroit stole home-ice advantage in the series and Game 3 is Monday night at The Joe. The question to be answered in the coming days is have the Red Wings improved enough to also knock off their rivals and a Stanley Cup favorite?

"I do think every time we've played them other than the blowout here in our building [a 7-1 loss on March 31], it has been tight matchups," Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "Other than just playing them, of course our game has been very much up and down this year, but it does feel like we're moving on the right track."

Some of "the kids" were not with the Red Wings at the start of the season, and their ability to lock down a permanent place in the lineup has led in part to the improvement. Not having Darren Helm, the guy expected to be the No. 3 center, was a big blow to the team's depth, but Joakim Andersson has settled into that role and been a revelation in the postseason.

One of the guys skating next to him, Gustav Nyquist, was also playing for Grand Rapids in the American Hockey League in January, but he and a third rookie, Damien Brunner, have joined Andersson to form the team's third line. Brunner is tied for the team lead in goals with four and tied for second with seven points.

Brunner and Nyquist both have overtime goals in the postseason as well.