The Detroit Red Wings remind me of the protagonists in one of those cheesy 1950s-style Dracula movies. You know the kind. Someone has a chance to kill off the Count early, fails to do so – and all sorts of mayhem subsequently ensues.
The Red Wings were like that with a week to go in the regular season – on the cusp of missing the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. Somebody just had to come in and finish them off when they were down and out, and couldn't. The end result is what you see right now, a team very much alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs and threatening to knock out the President's Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks in the second round.
After eliminating the No. 2 seeded Anaheim Ducks in the opening round, the Red Wings pulled ahead in their series against the Blackhawks Monday night with a 3-1 win at the Joe Louis Arena in the only game on the schedule.
There were a couple of controversial moments in the game (more on that later), but the bottom line is, for the second game in a row, the Red Wings were the better team. Anaheim had them on the ropes in the previous series – up 3-2 – but Detroit won a pair of elimination games. After getting spanked in the opener, a loss that you could attribute mostly to the fatigue of going seven games in the opening round, the Red Wings have recovered nicely from that setback and look like the far more poised team.
Most of the good things that have happened to the Red Wings since they made that 11th hour push towards the playoffs could be attributed to the play of their top forwards, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, who've been great. But the Game 3 victory was mostly keyed by the bottom two lines, which contributed two goals 31 seconds apart in the middle period to break up a scoreless tie.
From there, Detroit did what good, experienced teams do – and kept the Blackhawks at bay. Playoff officiating has been front-and-centre this post-season and there were two calls, one each way, that influenced the direction of the game in the third period. On the first, Red Wings' forward Johan Franzen was wiped out by a check from behind deep in the Blackhawks zone by defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson. With Franzen down and out, the Blackhawks scored on the counter attack, Duncan Keith putting Patrick Kane in behind the defence for his second goal of the post-season.
Could Hjalmarsson have been called for a penalty there? Coach Mike Babcock thought so. But moments later, the Red Wings also benefited from a close call that went their way – a goal by Viktor Stalberg wiped out when it was determined Andrew Shaw had interfered with goaltender Jimmy Howard. Shaw actually made no contact whatsoever but he was camped out in the crease, which is technically a violation – one that rarely gets called anymore. Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford figured it was the first time since about 2000 that a goal was disallowed for a foot in the crease – he must have been thinking of Brett Hull, Dallas Stars, 1999, against the Buffalo Sabres. Blackhawks' coach Joel Quenneville said it was the turning point, given that Stalberg's goal would have tied the score and shifted the momentum their way. Instead, Franzen made a good play on a subsequent rush, fed Datsyuk for a laser-shot that skipped in and out of the net in the blink of an eye, and the two-goal lead was enough of a cushion for the Red Wings the rest of the way.
You can pretty much complain about the refereeing every night if you want to, because the game is so fast, the refs do not have the benefit of multiple replays and even if they did, not everybody agrees, even after the fact, what the right call might have been. Kings' coach Darryl Sutter made a reference to that the other day. He basically finds it's a waste of time to argue about, or criticize the referees. His contention is that his team needs to take three or fewer penalties in every game. If they do, they usually win.
Even though they are bruising, hard-hitting, L.A. does a good job mostly of staying out of the penalty box. Sutter has been around long enough to know that officiating is a factor in the game, the same way as defensive zone turnovers and or superlative saves are factors in the game.
It's hard to dispute the fact that as decently as Crawford played in goal for Chicago, Howard's performance for the Red Wings – 39 saves on 40 shots – made him a difference-maker in the game.
As their younger players mature, the Red Wings look like a far better team now than they did in March. They haven't been to a conference final since 2009 – two second-round defeats, plus a first-round loss last year to the Nashville Predators – but they are starting to look like a serious threat again.
"As the year's gone on, we've gotten better," said Red Wings' coach Mike Babcock post-game. "We're got real good leadership ... and a bunch of kids that work hard.
"But let's be honest, we haven't done anything yet."
No, but they're halfway there, which is something you might not have thought possible with a week to go in the regular season, when the Columbus Blue Jackets were threatening to bump them from the playoff picture altogether.
The defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings made a concerted push to keep the same old gang together this season, and signed everybody back in September so as to preserve as much as possible the chemistry they developed in a magical 16-4 playoff run. Ultimately, injuries obliged them to tweak the line-up just a little during the season – adding Robyn Regehr and Keaton Ellerby on defence in trades, and calling up from the minors two of their top prospects, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Pearson made his NHL debut in Saturday's loss to the Sharks, replacing Jordan Nolan in the line-up. Regehr has been the key addition. He plays first-pair minutes, largely alongside Drew Doughty. Ellerby has been mostly a seventh defenceman in the playoffs, but he drew in after Alec Martinez took a couple of those penalties in Game 2 that Sutter hates so much.
But the biggest difference is that last year's Kings were road warriors, going 10-1 in the Stanley Cup playoffs after being forced to start each series on the road. This year, L.A. has been practically unbeatable of late at the Staples Centre, but already has three losses on the road this year.
After Saturday's OT defeat, the Kings chartered home right after the game, so they wouldn't have to stay in San Jose with an extra off day between Games 3 and 4. The Kings met on Sunday, practiced hard on Monday and then returned to San Jose later Monday afternoon. "What were we going to do two days in San Jose?" wondered Sutter. "We would have been bored."
MISSING IN ACTION
It has been a tough playoff season for some of the NHL's rich and famous, the players who are supposed to be difference makers at this time of year. For the teams already on the sidelines, Corey Perry of the eliminated Ducks finished 10th on his team in scoring with two assists in seven games, tied with David Steckel and Ben Lovejoy. Alex Ovechkin was ninth on the Caps in scoring, with two assists in seven games. Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise never got it going for Minnesota Wild.
Then there are the ongoing struggles of players such as the Bruins' Tyler Seguin with just a single assist in nine games. The Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews has three assists in eight games, and trails Shaw and Bryan Bickell on Chicago's scoring list. The Kings' top line of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams has just a single goal in three games vs. San Jose, and it came on a 5-on-3 power play attempt. And most disturbingly, Rick Nash and Brad Richards have been dismal for the New York Rangers, Nash with four points in nine games, Richards limited to a single point thus far.
Makes you wonder what kind of paydays a very average free-agent crop is going to get this summer. Will we finally see the end of those dog-and-pony shows that some agencies like to orchestrate? You gotta hope so.
I, for one, cannot wait to see Patrick Roy take over as the next Colorado Avalanche coach. I'm not sure how good a coach Roy will necessarily be, but he'll surely breathe a little fire into a team that has lacked that for years now. It was a point goalie J.S. Giguere made after the Avs fell completely out of the playoff picture last year, with a team that had far more talent than clubs that finished ahead of them in the standings. You wonder what kind of an effect Roy would have on goalie Semyon Varlamov, who cost the Avs a first-round draft choice, and supposedly is good enough to be a starter in the NHL. If Varlamov could ever give the Avs the sort of netminding Sergei Bobrovsky gave the Blue Jackets this season, they will be a threat, sooner or later. Too many good young pieces up front, and Seth Jones coming, to think otherwise.