ON A SUNDAY evening in early March, long before he made the most prolific playoff run in Detroit Red Wings history, Johan Franzen scored the goal that started it all. Skating near the left-wing face-off dot late in the second period of what would become a 4--2 Detroit win in Buffalo, Franzen, a forward, took a pass from defenseman Niklas Kronwall and buried the puck behind goalie Ryan Miller. It was just the 13th goal of the season for the 6' 2", 210-pound Franzen, who hoped that the score—which ended a seven-game drought—would be a sign of more to come. Was it ever.
"Since that goal I don't know what's gotten into him," says Kronwall, a fellow Swede who bunks with Franzen on the road. "I don't think he knows either. He's using his size, he's confident, he's realizing what a good player he can be. But as far as the numbers, well, it's ridiculous."
Franzen's absurd, Richardian pace of 26 goals in 26 games—including an NHL-high 11 in just 10 postseason games—has also made the Western Conference finalist Red Wings ridiculously hard to stop. Franzen has most often centered the second line between Mikael Samuelsson and Valtteri Filppula, relieving pressure from Detroit's All-World trio of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom. Along the way he has also relieved names such as Gordie Howe's of their places in the Wings' record book. With his hat trick in a series-clinching 8--2 victory over the Avalanche last Thursday (Franzen's nine goals in the four-game series equaled Colorado's output), he surpassed the franchise record for goals in an entire postseason and relegated Howe's mark of eight goals in a playoff series, set in 1949, to the bins of history. In March he broke Howe's 56-year-old mark for game-winning goals in a month, with six. "I'm sorry to have spoiled his birthday," Franzen said after potting the offending score on March 30, the day before Mr. Hockey turned 80.
If Franzen is the league's MVP this postseason, he is also its biggest surprise. Detroit's third-round draft pick in 2004, he had been so defensive-minded playing in the Swedish Elite League that his meager goal totals drew little NHL interest. "He would retreat into a defensive position even after winning a face-off," recalls Wings scout Hakan Andersson, who unearthed Franzen in Link√∂ping. At 24, Franzen was past his draft-year prime (he says he had essentially given up hopes of an NHL career because "I thought I was too old"), yet Andersson believed that he had underappreciated skills: a heavy shot and better skating ability than his size suggested. Andersson thought that at the least Franzen could be a strong checking center, which, by the 2005--06 season, is what he had become. "He's the guy we've used to shut down the other team's top center," says Detroit coach Mike Babcock. "But we've always seen offensive ability in him."
Franzen got the chance to display that ability when injuries elevated him to the second line earlier this year. Nicknamed Mule for his tireless work habits, he has emerged as a classic threat in front of the net, scoring on deflections and short shovel-ins while absorbing the elbows and butt-ends of the territory. During Detroit's six-game playoff winning streak he created goals by carrying the puck through traffic and deep into the zone, scored off the rush and broke away, as he did in overtime of Game 5 against the Nashville Predators in Round 1. Sweeping in on goalie Dan Ellis, Franzen deked left, then right, then calmly knocked in a backhander.
A gentle sort with an affection for berry picking and, he says, "spending time on my own in the woods or in a little boat on a lake," Franzen spent his first two NHL seasons adjusting to the targeted physical play that remains a European player's rite of passage. In his case this included a concussive open-ice blow from Vancouver Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell last season. Then in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series against the Flames last April, Calgary goalie Jamie McLennan hacked an unguarded Franzen in the midsection with his stick. McLennan was suspended. Franzen? "The way he came back in Game 6, the way he played all game and then scored the overtime goal ... that said a lot about him," says Red Wings G.M. Ken Holland. "Maybe that says he arrived."
Throughout his more recent arrival—into the nightly highlights, the record books, the national conversation—Franzen has been predictably humble and even-keeled. "Crazy luck," he says, describing his onslaught against the Avalanche. "It almost doesn't seem right."
As Detroit defenseman Aaron Downey said to Franzen in the early stages of his run, "Mule, you're playing so great, you're a horse." And the Red Wings have been happy to ride him.
MULE'S FINISHING KICK In a sweep of Colorado, Franzen (left) potted nine goals for the Red Wings, who now take on Dallas.