Tuesday May 4th, 2010

Let's get this out of the way, shall we? The officiating wasn't exactly friendly to the Red Wings on Sunday. In fact, there were so many egregiously bad calls made in that contest that Kevin Pollock and Brad Watson are certain to be watching the next round on TV from the comfort of their summer cottages.

But don't buy into the babblings of the tinfoil-hatted conspiracy nuts who are planning to gather outside the Joe prior to Game 3. There's no NHL cabal plotting to ensure the Wings' demise. (Seriously, why would the league pursue an agenda that would see one of its top markets sidelined?) With bad calls going both ways, the stripes weren't at the root of that 4-3 loss in Game 2. Detroit simply didn't do enough to earn the win.

As a result, the Wings find themselves in an uncomfortable position: down two games to none heading into a pivotal Game 3. It's been seven years since they last dropped the first two games of a series, and that one didn't end well. They were swept in that 2003 first round encounter with the Anaheim Ducks. The year before, however, Detroit fought back from a 2-0 deficit to take down the Vancouver Canucks in six. So I'm saying there's a chance. At least, as long as the Wings focus on addressing the elements of the game that they can control. And that starts with making adjustments in the circle.

As I suggested in my series preview, face-offs have played a significant role in determining the flow of these contests. The Sharks won in large part because they dominated the dots in Game 2. They took 43 of 69 in the contest, including a stunning 19 of 28 in the offensive zone. When you see numbers like that, it's not hard to connect the dots to the lopsided shot advantage enjoyed by the Sharks, or to understand how the Wings were forced into chase mode. That put Detroit in a position where at least a few of those 10 penalties were all but inevitable.

The return to Joe Louis should help tilt the scale back in their favor -- the home center gets to put his stick down last -- but they still have to win the face-off. The Wings aren't a counterattack team. They need the puck to execute and the circle is the best place to start. Maybe if Henrik Zetterberg can get his legs under him there, he can get his game going elsewhere. Zetterberg is one of several Wings stars whose execution was lacking in San Jose. Is he hurt? He might be nursing a leg injury based on how little jump he's had in this series. A few legitimate chances won't be enough. He and linemates Todd Bertuzzi and Valtterri Filppula need to add a little finish to their games in order for the Wings to claw their way back into the series.

For the Sharks, Game 3 should come down to two elements: maintaining their discipline and getting something out of the reunited first line.

Joe Pavelski has lit the candle for San Jose in their last three contests, but the Sharks can't count on this modern-day John Druce to keep up this pace, especially as they go on the road. Todd McLellan recognized that in Game 2 when he pulled Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau off their makeshift lines and reassembled his No. 1 unit to add some spark to the offense.

No arguing that the chemistry of the group of late wouldn't meet the exacting specifications of a Walter White. Still, the trio, which had been separated midway through the last series as much because of injuries as its lack of production, looked comfortable when given its chance. And McLellan's gamble paid off when Thornton pounced on a rebound of a Heatley bid and beat Jimmy Howard for the eventual game winner.

That it was Thornton's first of the playoffs is no surprise. It's no secret that he's built a rep as the Dirk Nowitzki of the NHL, a superlative regular season scorer whose weaknesses are magnified under the bright lights of the playoffs. And like the Dallas Mavericks star, he's never going to shake that rep until, well, he shakes it. And his best chance of doing that is with Heatley and Marleau as his wingmen.

Will that unit be together tonight? Hard to believe that McLellan wouldn't give them another chance. So with all defensive eyes shifting to Pavelski's line, it's up to them to provide a consistent second offensive front.

The other element might be more subtle, but it can't be overlooked: The officials aren't deaf to the chatter. They certainly watched the contest on tape and they understand why the Wings feel hard done by. They'll go into this one with the goal of calling a fair and balanced contest, but human nature is what it is and the Sharks may have to deal with a makeup call or two. The trick then will be to limit opportunities for the refs to make those calls by watching their play around the crease and avoiding the urge to retaliate.

This one has to be their smartest game of the season

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