NHL playoffs: Discipline the difference as Red Wings blank Blackhawks, 2-0
By Allan Muir
When Jonathan Toews watches the tape of Chicago's 2-0 Game 4 loss in Detroit, he should pay close attention to the play of his nemesis Henrik Zetterberg and of Zetterberg's Red Wings teammate, Pavel Datsyuk.
He'll see the two stars were subjected to a series of hooks, jabs, slashes and all manner of uncalled cheap shots, just as Toews was. He might also notice that, despite that duress, they rarely lost their cool.
And really, that was the difference tonight and in the previous two games that have seen the Wings wrestle control of this series from the Stanley Cup favorites. While Toews and the Hawks allowed their frustration to get the best of them over and over again, the Red Wings simply gritted their teeth, put their heads down and kept their focus.
That's how the Wings have earned a 3-1 series lead that's surprising only to those who haven't watched them in action. Yesterday, Pierre McGuire offered some insight on the series to SI.com's Stu Hackel, which you can read here. And it's why the Stanley Cup favorites are on the ropes and facing elimination in Game 5 on Saturday.
Here are some thoughts and observations from tonight's action:
• Toews tied Patrick Kane for Chicago's team lead with 23 tallies during the regular season, but he's clearly feeling the pressure of the goal column goose egg that he carried into tonight's game. "Maybe a little," he admitted the other day. "Eventually it's going to come. Right now, [I'm] just not letting it build up too much in my own mind. But I know that sooner or later, something's got to give."
Tonight, it was his composure that gave way. Smothered -- again -- by Zetterberg, Jonathan Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall, Toews let his frustration get the best of him. He took three (THREE!) consecutive penalties, all stick fouls, on three consecutive shifts in the second period.
Chicago's penalty kill has been brilliant in these playoffs, going 30 straight chances without allowing a goal until Jakub Kindl scored with one second remaining on Toews' second infraction. But it wasn't the goal that hurt so much as the total swing in momentum that sucked the life out of the Hawks. And then for Toews to go out and commit another foul right away? No wonder coach Joel Quenneville sat his captain for almost three minutes after he finished serving that one.
You know Toews wants to score, but it's just as important that he sets the tone for his teammates. And right now, his utter lack of discipline is leading them down the wrong path.
• It's not all on Toews, of course. When a stacked team like Chicago scores just two goals over the course of three games, the entire room shares the blame. But some guys deserve a larger share than others.
Patrick Kane was a non-factor, landing two shots but showing no appetite for the punishment that the Wings were dishing out in the middle of the ice. Quenneville noticed him floating around the edges, and with the game on the line limited his other top sniper to just three shifts in last 11 minutes, with the third coming after Danny Cleary's empty-netter salted the game away with 38.2 seconds remaining.
• The stat sheet said Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp played nearly 40 minutes between them, but they were barely noticeable, mustering just three shots between them. And Brent Seabrook, a player challenged by Quenneville before the game to provide something more, earned just 12:03 of ice time -- nearly 10 minutes below his season average.
• One of the two coaches in this series was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award. It's time for him to prove he deserved it. Quenneville changed up his lines before this game and tweaked his power play. In-game, he cut ice time of under-performers and sat star players to cool them down. He's hammering every button he can find and nothing is working. He's being outsmarted by Mike Babcock at every turn and unless he can find a way to get his troops pulling in the same direction -- or at least convince a couple of his guys to plant themselves in Jimmy Howard's kitchen on a consistent basis -- the Blackhawks are headed for a humiliating end in Game 5.
• The consensus heading into the series was that Howard had to steal it for the Wings to win. It hasn't been all him, of course, but he's been superstar-good in dealing Chicago it's first three-game losing streak of the season. He denied 28 shots tonight for the shutout and has stopped 84 of the last 86 he's faced for a .977 save percentage. That's pretty stout.
Howard wasn't tested often tonight, but he made a couple of 10-bell stops to protect the one-goal lead, including a sprawling pad save that robbed Dave Bolland off a one-timer on a lethal-looking two-on-one chance in the third.
"Howie played well," Babcock said after the game. "We pay him to do that. We expect him to do that."
Nothing like pumping a guy's tires.
• Though he was reserved about Howard, Babcock was quick to heap praise on the PK. "Our penalty kill has been outstanding. It started the worst in the NHL, finished 12th and then got better. Tonight, I thought it was huge for us."
The Red Wings killed off three Chicago power plays tonight, and have limited the Hawks to just one goal in the series with the man advantage, and that was back in Game 1. The unit was at its best when Kindl was whistled for a hook with just 4:45 left in the game. The Hawks failed to even attempt a shot under intense pressure from Detroit's checkers. That's huge, alright.
• At this point, the coaching decisions by Babcock are probably beyond being questioned by anyone, least of all by yours truly. Still, watching the live legs, tenacious forecheck, and savvy decision-making of Gustav Nyquist, it's fair to wonder when the coach is going to take him off the short leash and see just what he can do. The rookie winger played just over 10 minutes, but seemed to be the center of attention every time he hit the ice. He created two great scoring chances in the third period with his speed and frustrated the Hawks with his puck pursuit.
He certainly wasn't the only member of Detroit's surprisingly effective supporting cast to stand out -- a tip o' the cap here to Joakim Andersson, Patrick Eaves and Drew Miller for making the most of their limited minutes -- but Nyquist seems ready to break out into something more. Of course, Babcock probably already knows that.