Not often is an NHL coach happy with his team on a three-game losing streak going into the playoffs. So why is Scotty Bowman of the Detroit Red Wings smiling?

"I thought we did very well for the players that were missing," said Bowman, who rested many of his top players as the Red Wings closed their regular season last week. "We didn't fold the tent. I can't ask for much more."It was all part of Detroit's preparation. The Red Wings open defense of their Stanley Cup championship with a first-round Western Conference game against the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday night.

Other first-round games Wednesday: San Jose at Dallas and Edmonton at Colorado in the West, and Ottawa at New Jersey, Buffalo at Philadelphia and Boston at Washington in the East. On Thursday, it's Los Angeles at St. Louis in the West and Montreal at Pittsburgh in the East.

With 103 points, the Red Wings finished with the third-best record in the league (44-23-15) and the No. 3 seed in the West, behind Dallas and Colorado.

The Red Wings have learned from experience that the top record doesn't guarantee a Stanley Cup. They won the Presidents' Trophy in both lockout-shortened 1994-95 and 1995-96, when they set a league record for victories with 62, yet failed to win the title. Last season, they won the league championship after finishing with the fifth-best record.

In the 30 seasons since expansion, only half the teams that had the highest point total during the regular season won the Cup. The only team to win both the President's Cup and the Stanley Cup in the previous eight seasons has been the 1994 New York Rangers.

A Stanley Cup victory would cap a tumultuous year for the Red Wings. Defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was lost after a head injury in an auto accident following a Stanley Cup celebration.

The Red Wings then traded goaltender Mike Vernon, who had led them to the championship and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best player in the playoffs. The Red Wings figured they had a good replacement in the younger Chris Osgood.

Then Sergei Fedorov was a contract holdout until late in the year, when the Red Wings matched a staggering offer sheet given the forward by the Carolina Hurricanes. Fedorov, once the league's MVP, came back strong after his holdout.

"Sergei has been really good," Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman said. "He has given us a boost in all areas of the game. He plays a lot of minutes and has really played at a high tempo."

Yzerman said that Osgood - who had missed some time with injury - had also been playing at a high tempo as the Red Wings approached the playoffs.

"He has been solid," Yzerman said.

As has been the Red Wings' defense.

"We are playing better defensively as a group," Yzerman said. "Our play has picked up in the last few weeks."

A bit of history confronts the Red Wings in their bid for another title: Champions have a hard time repeating. There have been six different league champions and 11 different teams in the finals since 1992.