By Allan Muir
There was a script going around before this series that had the top-ranked Chicago Blackhawks rolling over the underdog Detroit Red Wings.
Apparently Mike Babcock's crew decided that script needed a few revisions.
In Game 3 on Monday night in Detroit, the Wings asserted their physical dominance early, then got second-period goals from Gustav Nyquist and Drew Miller 31 seconds apart followed by a third-period dagger from Pavel Datsyuk for a 3-1 win that gave them an unexpected 2-1 lead in the series.
Depth was supposed to provide a clear advantage for the Blackhawks, but again it was Detroit's unheralded third and fourth lines that made things happen with their work along the boards and in front of the net. "We've got guys whose job is to hit and provide energy," Miller said. "That's kind of how we play. We want to hit, and it's playoff time, so we ramp it up."
The pounding took a toll on the Hawks, whose frustration was made apparent when they took five consecutive penalties in a nasty third period. "We were scratching, clawing, and we were tough to play against," said Jonathan Toews, Chicago's captain. "We'll come back even harder in the next one. It almost takes something like this, or maybe someone to slap you in the face so to speak, to really understand what adversity is and how tough the playoffs can be."
Clearly, it's going a lot tougher than they expected.
Some thoughts and observations from tonight's contest:
• If the Red Wings end up winning this series -- a concept that seemed unimaginable just 72 hours ago -- it won't be because they have the better team. The Hawks are the more talented squad, but Detroit has been the more disciplined team and the one that's worked harder and smarter in all three zones during the last two games. And that's because Babcock is outcoaching Joel Quenneville by a mile. From matchups to face-offs to keeping his players focused, Babcock is winning every little battle.
• That was another great performance by Jimmy Howard. It's not that he stopped 39 of the 40 shots he faced, it's how he stopped them. His was a calm, measured effort without a hint of scramble tonight. And when he blocked them, he maintained complete control of his rebounds. The Hawks generated just three second-chance shots. Some nights that's a sign that a team's not battling. Tonight, it indicated that there was nothing to battle for. Expect Chicago to try to put more hard first shots into Howard's pillows on Thursday night in an effort to create more rebound chaos.
• Corey Crawford wasn't bad at the other end of the ice, but he wasn't up to Howard's standard, either. He committed too early on Nyquist's goal, allowing the young Swede to swing wide and score from a tough angle. He made a couple of stops in tight off Patrick Eaves before Miller knocked in a loose puck on the third chance. And Datsyuk's goal? Well, that was a bit of goosebump-raising magic, a lightning quick wrister that flew just under the crossbar and was back out of the net before Crawford could react. There isn't a goalie alive who would have stopped that one. Crawford hasn't been a difference-maker either way to this point. The Hawks need him to step up and steal one on Thursday.
• Speaking of guys who aren't making a difference, let's talk about Jonathan Toews. He has yet to score a goal in the playoffs (we'd be calling him "enigmatic" if his name was Toewsov) and he has just one assist in this series. The Wings are rolling Henrik Zetterberg, Danny Cleary and Niklas Kronwall against him to great effect. Toews led Chicago with seven shots on the night, but he failed to create any high-end scoring chances with them. His best opportunity probably came as time was winding down, when he managed to land a wraparound attempt on Howard, and that one might not have counted if he'd scored because of a penalty being called on Bryan Bickell (more on him in a minute). You know the cliché. At this time of year, you need your best players to be your best players. And to this point, Toews isn't living up to his paycheck.
• There's been all manner of whining about the officiating in these playoffs. After this game, these teams might have a point. It's one thing to let the boys play -- hey, everyone likes a bit of overt nastiness at this time of year -- but Tom Kowal and Brad Watson lost control of this one early and then compounded their failings instead of slowly reeling it back in.
At first it was just the obvious roughing/crosschecking/interference type calls that they missed. Fair enough; they let both sides get away with fouls. But their decision to ignore Niklas Hjalmarsson's crosscheck to Johan Franzen's back deep in Chicago's zone led directly to Patrick Kane's goal. That's bad enough, but they made it worse by waving off an apparent tying goal for the Hawks by calling goaltender inference on Andrew Shaw even though he clearly hadn't touched Howard while battling for space out front. If it wasn't a glaring attempt at a makeup call, it sure came off that way. Whether or not it changed the end result, it tampered with the integrity of the contest. For that, we shouldn't see this pair again in the playoffs. It's that simple.
• Forget for a moment that it shouldn't have happened, but that was one sick goal from Kane. The play started with a pass that Duncan Keith cleverly lobbed over the heads of Brendan Smith (who had another rough night) and Kyle Quincey right to Kane, who had snuck behind the defenders. That he managed to tame that bouncing puck to the point where he was able to exploit a brief opening between Howard's pads was nothing short of remarkable.
• Also remarkable: an early second-period penalty kill that saw four Wings trapped on the ice for more than two minutes in their own zone without yielding a goal. Eaves was out there for 2:15 and Kronwall for 2:46, but Miller and Jonathan Ericsson were trapped for a staggering 3:15. They allowed just one shot on net while blocking four other attempts to keep the score knotted at zero. Have to think that if the Hawks had found a way to take advantage of their dead legs, this game would have played out differently. Instead, their inability to execute comes back to haunt them again.
• Didn't matter who they were up against: Michal Rozsival and Johnny Oduya were overmatched for most of the night. I'd think that Quenneville might look to split them up for Game 4, or possibly look at sitting Rozsival, to lessen the risk. • Garbage move by Quenneville to throw Shaw and Bickell out there at the end of the game. There was still a chance for Chicago to cut into Detroit's lead, but he goes with guys who are frothing at the mouth. Bickell, who'd been running around for most of the third, was called for cross-checking Cleary repeatedly at 19:00, effectively ending any chance the Hawks had of mounting a comeback. Shaw then hopped over the boards and earned a misconduct 47 seconds later for general hooliganism. If there was a message being sent there, it wasn't that the Hawks would battle to the end. It's that the Red Wings are completely in their heads.