No one has a better view of what may end up being the spring's best playoff series -- the Chicago Blackhawks vs. the Detroit Red Wings -- than NBC and SI's Pierre McGuire. Stationed between the benches at the United Center and the tiny slot between the clubs at Joe Louis Arena, McGuire has an unparalleled perspective on these two Original Six squads flying around the ice and throwing sledgehammers at each other.
The Hawks and Wings go at it again on Thursday night in Game 4 with coach Mike Babcock's Detroit team -- a club, as we discussed earlier this week, that has reconstituted itself this season with youngsters replacing some grizzled veterans -- holding a surprising 2-1 lead over Joel Quenneville's guys, a group that dominated the Western Conference during the regular season. This matchup of NHL heavyweights is still in its early stages, but there are already signs it could turn out to be a classic.
"It's a good series because both teams are really well coached, both have really competitive goalies, both teams have stars that can play both ways -- not just offense, but defense, too -- and both teams can skate," McGuire told me on Wednesday, a rare off day for him before he flew back to Detroit for Game 4. "It can evolve into a great series because these are two proud teams that know how to play and are both very tough."
That toughness is not an attribute some observers ascribe to the Wings and Hawks, who are both excellent skating clubs. A few commentators have remarked that each of these teams might have problems playing against physical sides, but McGuire believes that's a mischaracterization in that each is certainly tough enough and this series shows they are being tough on each other.
"They both skate really well," he said. "They're really fast. But they both have bite. There's a reason why Chicago knows how to win. They know how to win because they have bite. You don't win by just showing up and skating. It's not a figure skating competition."
And the Wings' toughness has been one of the most talked-about aspects of the first three games, especially Babcock's deployment of captain Henrik Zetterberg to check Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. Zetterberg is not always thought of as a rugged player, but he is. Sometimes we forget that he won the 2008 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP because of his outstanding defensive play. He's leaned hard on Toews during the first three games, causing some observers to wonder why Quenneville didn't prefer to use Toews when Pavel Datsyuk was on the ice. A three-time Selke Trophy winner for top defensive forward, Datsyuk also excels when playing without the puck, but his forte is stealing it with a surgical swipe of his stick, not necessarily roughing up his check.
"I asked Joel if he was comfortable with Zetterberg playing against Toews and he says, 'Well, you've got to pick your poison.'" McGuire said. "At home, he didn't have a problem with that until the third period of Game 2 when he started switching out of it and getting Toews out against Datsyuk more. Toews is a really important player and he's been identified by Detroit as a guy you've got to eliminate and they've done a really good job so far without taking penalties."
Toews has not scored a goal yet in this year's playoffs, but he does so many things well -- from his passing, his special teams play, his leadership -- that it's no surprise Detroit has targeted him for extra attention. McGuire does not doubt that Toews can handle whatever the Wings throw at him. The big question for the Hawks is whether his teammates can compensate for it.
"Jonathan's a big boy and he's played through a lot of adversity throughout his career," he said. "That's one of the reasons he's such a star. He's not intimidated by other players. He never has been and I don't believe he ever will be. But when he distributes the puck, his wingers -- whether it's Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad or Patrick Sharp -- are going to have to make something happen. He's going to be drawing a lot of attention and the other guys are going to have to make it count. When they get the chance to finish plays off, they are going to have to do it.
"Detroit has an advantage on home ice because Babcock can come at him with fresh bodies all the time because he gets last change," he continued. "Unless Quenneville decides to change on the fly, it can be more difficult. On the road, I think Mike wants to get Zetterberg out as much as possible and that opens up Datsyuk for more offensive opportunities. But when they're in Detroit, Mike can get fresh bodies out there and it gets much harder for Toews, much harder. So that's where the other center icemen for Chicago -- Dave Bolland or Michal Handzus or Marcus Kruger or Andrew Shaw, whoever it is -- are going to have more room. They have to take advantage of their opportunities, too."
While the Wings are focusing on stopping Toews, one of the main points in the Hawks' strategy is to break down Detroit's defense. "They're trying to stretch Detroit's defense out," McGuire said. "They're flying the winger a lot. You can see it on the Patrick Kane goal in Game 3. They're definitely trying to sneak Kane in, stretch the zone....
".... Hossa's been doing it, Michael Frolik has been doing it, Kane's done it a lot, Patrick Sharp's doing it. They're flying the winger in behind Detroit's defense to create seams. And, by and large, it can work because their defense moves the puck so well. So that will be interesting to watch in Game 4. I'm sure Babcock is aware of it but if Detroit doesn't make the right adjustment, that could cost them."
In addition to how well Chicago's defense passes the puck, it also can initiate and join the rush. "Chicago has the best left side skating defense in the league," McGuire says. "Duncan Keith, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy -- there's not a left defense in the league that skates better than that group and they have the hammers on the right side in Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Michal Rozsival is a capable NHL defenseman, so that Chicago defense is really good and they have the ability to jump the left side into the rush a great deal because they are such fluid skaters."
That veteran defense corps is one of the advantages that the Blackhawks have over the Red Wings in this series. The Wings' blueliners have played very well, especially given their relative inexperience, but they may not have as many dimensions to their game as Chicago's does.
"Detroit is not at that level yet," said McGuire. "I think they will be in time. They've got some very good young defensemen coming along: Danny DeKeyser, who's injured right now; Xavier Ouellet; this kid Ryan Sproul from the Ontario Hockey League who is now playing for Grand Rapids. They've got another kid who was an All-American at St. Cloud State, Nick Jensen, so they've got some real good young defense."
It's hard to think of this year's Red Wings as an upstart club, especially with the winning history Detroit has had during the last two decades, but with an infusion of youth, even the team's own management had doubts it would make the playoffs before this season started. Now the Wings appear to be playing like seasoned playoff veterans and McGuire believes they've developed faster than even the organization expected.
"I think the biggest thing is that players develop in playoff hockey -- especially when they get past Game 4 or Game 5 in a series. And I think the Detroit players really benefitted from playing Games 5, 6 and 7 against Anaheim. You could see it, especially in Game 7, they got better in a hurry as a group. And that's why I think they were able to win Game 2 in Chicago. They became hardened; they became used to the intensity and scrutiny of playoff games. So young players like Justin Abdelkader and Damien Brunner, I think those two in particular and Jonathan Ericsson on defense -- even though he's not young, he still hasn't had a lot of big time playoff experience -- in key moments they've really thrived. I just look at it and I say 'Man, their young guys have been tested by fire and they handled it really well."
A win on home ice Thursday would give the Red Wings an improbable 3-1 series lead. Are we looking at a potential upset?
"No, it's still too early," McGuire said. "I think even Detroit would admit to that. I mean, Chicago is really good. They weren't good in Game 2. Detroit was just better, but that Game 3 could have gone either way. There was some really good goaltending from Jimmy Howard, there was some quick strike offense in the second period by Detroit, and it was an unbelievable goal by Datsyuk that was the separation play.
"I mean that was a really tight game after the first period. I thought Detroit was the better team in the first, then it was a really tight game after that."
It was an emotional game, too. Quenneville and, uncharacteristically, Toews appeared more upset than at any time in recent memory. Bryan Bickel and Dan Cleary seemed to joust all game. There's bound to be some carry-over and McGuire, with the best seat in the house, sounded excited at the prospect of once again squeezing himself into that tiny space along the boards and seeing how this series plays out.
"It's going to be fun to watch the rest of this," he said.