Darren Eliot
Friday May 15th, 2009

Game 7 in Detroit at Joe Louis Arena between the Red Wings and the Ducks wasn't a title game, but it had the pulse and feel of a title fight. As in two heavyweights going toe-to-toe and taking turns dishing out their best. In the end, the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings advance by the slimmest of margins over the 2007 Stanley cup winning Ducks, winning 4-3 (RECAP | BOX).

The Red Wings wanted to start well and they did. As head coach Mike Babcock put it to me this morning, "We need to be harder on the inside from the outset. We can't settle for shots from the perimeter." The only settling the Red Wings did in the first period was being satisfied with just a 1-0 lead despite putting 32 shots at Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller. Seventeen hit the net, but only one found the back of it courtesy of a power-play tally by Jiri Hudler.

Early in the second, Darren Helm jumped the gap at the defensive blueline, reading correctly that his team was about to gain possession of the puck. That head start coupled with Helm's blazing speed sent him in alone on Hiller where he buried a low snap shot just under the blocker and over the pad. Jubilation at The Joe was the mood of the moment. It wasn't long-lived, however.

The game took on a helter-skelter feel the rest of the period. The Ducks struck for a goal when Teemu Selanne snuck a near-side rebound past Wings netminder Chris Osgood. The Wings answered quickly with a broken-play goal by Mikael Samuelsson to restore the two-goal advantage. But the Wings ran into penalty problems and the Ducks struck on one of their man advantages when Chris Pronger cross-checked Hudler into Hiller and the referees whistled him for goaltender interference, never detecting Pronger's illegal push. In galling fashion, Pronger assisted on Corey Perry's ensuing power-play goal and the team's headed to the third at 3-2.

In the third, the Ducks put their best effort forward, pressuring the Red Wings on the forecheck. They knotted the game when Jonathan Ericsson lost the puck when he inadvertently got tangled up with the stray stick of teammate Brad Stuart. Stuart had lost his stick on the previous shift, but it laid to the left of Osgood undetected. Bobby Ryan tapped in his first goal of the series to knot the proceedings at three apiece. It set up a classic finish between two differently constructed but nonetheless very even teams.

So, despite failing on two separate 5-on-3 powerplays and falling behind 2-0 and 3-1, the Ducks had battled all the way back. In hindsight, they'll look back and bemoan the opportunities lost with the two-man advantages. They might even question Dan Cleary's game-winning goal with three minutes remaining as he pushed Hiller's pad from the front which knocked the loose puck across the line, as it lay there uncovered.

Those are the "what ifs?" The importance here is what was. The difference was the Red Wings' depth. They scored four times and they came from the lesser lights in the line-up like Helm and Cleary. The other element that won this for the Red Wings was their experience. When the Ducks made it 3-3, they didn't panic. They didn't press. They just played -- like a team with true belief in itself.

The outcome might seem unfair, because the Ducks played with as much fight and belief as a team can muster. But, there is no denying that after seven hard fought games, of which the Ducks won three times by a single goal, the outcome was just.

Just enough for the Red Wings to advance to the Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks.

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