By Allan Muir
Here we go again.
Game 7. Every kid's dream.
By the time tonight's tilt at the United Center is over, the Chicago Blackhawks will have rallied from a 3-1 series deficit and asserted their championship pedigree, or the surprising Detroit Red Wings will have rebounded from consecutive failures to clinch by finally knocking off the predominant favorite to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Like Tuesday night's epic battle between Los Angeles and San Jose, Wednesday night's clash should be a thriller between two deep, talented and well-coached clubs. But what's it going to take to win?
Let's dispense with the obvious -- get pucks and traffic to the net, keep the gaps tight, work the body, stay out of the box, get a big game from the goaltender -- and look at each team's three specific keys to claiming Game 7 and moving on to meet the Kings:
1. Stop worrying about Jonathan Toews; make him worry about you: Look, the Red Wings did a magnificent job of getting into Toews' head earlier in the series to the point where he wasn't just neutralized as a threat, he actually became a liability for the Hawks as his frustration mounted. But as the good ones have a way of doing, he made his adjustments and was again an impact player in Chicago's last two wins. Simply sending Henrik Zetterberg over the boards every time Toews touches the ice probably won't change that for Game 7, but forcing him to spend more time out of the offensive zone will. That means coach Mike Babcock needs to follow the lead of Joel Quenneville and put his scoring eggs into one basket. Skating Zetterberg with Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen hasn't always guaranteed success in the past, but the potential for an offensive explosion should force Quenneville to counter with his Selke-nominated captain. That could be two birds right there, but only if Detroit's top players raise their game above what we've seen in the past two outings.
2. Steady the kids: The Wings have received some solid, energetic efforts from their Kiddie Korps in the playoffs, but they've also been victimized by the occasional youthful indiscretion. (Brendan Smith, we're looking at you -- but not in a judgmental way or anything.) For better or worse, that's a trade-off the organization was willing to make since this is the lineup it brought into the playoffs ... but this is the game that requires the kids to stop acting like rookies and start playing like 10-year vets. The experience of knocking off Anaheim on the road in Game 7 should help steady the nerves, but the challenge for Babcock will be to remind them not to tighten up, not to overthink. Just do the things that got them to this point in the first place. Boston's Claude Julien, a far less patient man with rookies, managed to do just that with three rookie defenders against the Rangers. Encouraging the young Wings to play their games will keep them in their comfort zones and should minimize gaffes.
3. Control your fate in the third period: No matter how well things go for Detroit over the first 40 minutes, the Wings have consistently abandoned their poise and discipline in the third period. The result has been an embarrassing goal disparity that's cost them several games, including Monday's Game 6. Up, down or even entering the final frame tonight, they have to come out of the gate like a troop of enraged silverbacks and keep up the pressure to force the other guys into making mistakes for a change. The minute they sink back into a less aggressive posture, they're exploitable.
1. Get the puck to Bryan Bickell: The big winger plays the right kind of hockey for this kind of game: heavy, relentless and without fear. He's always effective in the corners and on the forecheck, but right now he's feeling it in front of the net. Bickell has two goals in the past two games and five for the postseason because he's going to the right places. He's a load to handle in front (just ask Smith) and he has the hands to pounce on the free bunnies he finds laying around the crease. Play him with Toews, set him loose and watch him wreak some havoc on the Wings.
2. Activate the defense early: One of the adjustments that Quenneville made early in Game 5 was sending his blueliners deep into the offensive zone. It worked brilliantly because Detroit's forwards didn't tighten up their gaps and that let Chicago create odd-man matchups on the puck carrier and force turnovers. It's not a 60-minute game plan, but employed strategically, especially against Detroit's second and third defense pairings, it's effective at breaking down the Wings' transition game and keeping them hemmed in their own zone. The scoring chances will follow. 3. Win the depth battle: Detroit's third and fourth lines have probably punched above their weight to this point. They scored all three goals in the Game 6 loss and helped shift the momentum with their speed or their grit. It's critical that Chicago counter tonight with similar energy levels and a more aggressive defense to keep their counterparts off the score sheet. That means winning board battles, getting pucks deep and keeping it pinned in the offensive zone for as long as possible to limit the pressure on Corey Crawford. And hey, if they manage to score a goal or two tonight, that will be huge.