Teams skate with more urgency and desperation when their backs are against the wall in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Chicago Blackhawks did just that on Saturday against the Red Wings.
They need to do it again in Detroit.
The sixth game of the series goes Monday night with the home team holding a 3-2 lead. It took a strong performance by the Blackhawks in their 4-1 Game 5 win to send the series back to Joe Louis Arena, but the Red Wings now have a second chance to eliminate Chicago, and the fact that they've got home ice advantage enhances their opportunity.
Of the 266 times that teams have trailed a series three games to one, only 24 have come back to win the round, so the odds remain against the Hawks. They avoided getting knocked out on Saturday, dominating Detroit in a way they hadn't done since Game 1. They'll look to build on that in Game 6 and really have no other choice.
In addition to having the crowd behind his team, home ice gives Red Wings coach Mike Babcock the last line change and that means he'll give Hawks captain Jonathan Toews, the cornerstone of so much that Chicago does, a steady diet of Henrik Zetterberg as the opposing center and Niklas Kronwall on defense. From the start of the series, those two Wings have leaned heavily on Toews when they've been on the ice. Until Game 5, Toews' effectiveness had been limited, but with the Hawks having last change at home on Saturday, coach Joel Quenneville was able to get him away from Zetterberg and Kronwall, something he declined to do in Game 1 and most of Game 2.
Even at times in Game 5, when Quenneville threw Toews on against the Wings' fourth line, Babcock changed quickly after the face-off to get Zetterberg, his wingers Valtteri Filppula and Dan Cleary, and Kronwall out there. In Detroit, Babcock won't have to mess with his team's rhythm.
Regardless, Toews had his best game of the series in his last outing, making his presence felt everywhere and, after nine games, finally scoring his first goal of the playoffs, the tally coming on a terrific shot that he roofed over the shoulder of Wings goalie Jimmy Howard.
It was just one of the 45 shots that the Hawks launched at Howard, who has been a difference-maker for most of this round. Compared to only 26 shots by Detroit, the Blackhawks barrage indicated just how much they dictated play. Their fans hope that control means their team has finally figured out how to handle its longtime rival and can win two more.
From the Red Wings' perspective, they don't feel as if they played Game 5 well at all, certainly not up to the level that built their 3-1 series lead. They had uncharacteristic turnovers, especially while killing penalties, and didn't seem to recognize a fundamental truth of the playoffs: The fourth win is always the most difficult to achieve.
"We weren't good enough tonight at all as far as our plan, the way we have to play to be successful," Babcock said afterward. "There was just too much space and they were just freewheeling around, having fun.... Anybody who has been in the league a long time and been through lots of series knows how hard it is to close teams out. Anybody who hasn't probably is a little surprised."
Babcock may have felt that his team was tentative for most of Game 5, on its heels when, with a chance to close things out, it should have been on its toes. But credit Quenneville and the Hawks for making some changes and being more aggressive than they've been at any point since this round began.
That's due to some adjustments that Quenneville made. In Game 4, he tried neutralizing the abuse Toews was taking by putting big Bryan Bickell on the captain's line, but that just resulted in Bickell taking penalties. In Game 5, with the last change, Quenneville put together a line of marauding big men -- Bickell, Michal Handzus and Marian Hossa -- and a fast skill line of Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, and deployed them depending on the situation. Bickell and Handzus were together with Kane for Game 5's first goal, and Chicago's more aggressive approach -- big bodies driving to the net -- was obvious.
When Babcock put Zetterberg on, Quenneville countered with Dave Bolland, who can be just as physically abrasive, to give the Wings' captain some of his own medicine.
It all proved very effective on Saturday, but how well it will work in Game 6, when Babcock has the home ice advantage and can better dictate player rotation, remains an open question.
Another of Quenneville's changes was to reunite his top defense tandem of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. It's curious that he had separated them. Seabrook's play, especially, really suffered -- so much so that he was limited to only 12 minutes of ice time in Game 4. Reunited for Game 5, the pair were dominant, each playing over 23 minutes with Keith picking up a pair of assists, one on the Hawks' second goal -- a power play tally (as was Toews') on a great deflection by yet another of Chicago's more physical skaters, winger Andrew Shaw.
All of the Blackhawks' defensemen played an active, skating game, providing an added dimension to the offense, one (as we discussed last week) that Detroit does not have -- and that's something that they can do just as well on the road as at home. They jumped into the rushes and pinched effectively on the forecheck, helping the Hawks play with the puck for most of the contest and keep it away from Detroit.
Chicago may catch a break if Kronwall, the Red Wings' most important blueliner, is not at his best for Game 6 after the rugged hit he took from Bickell with about seven minutes left in Game 5 that seemed to injure his right hand or arm. Krionwall played only one more shift -- an abbreviated one -- after that, and while he'll reportedly be in the lineup on Monday, how effective he'll be is uncertain. He plays in all situations, both five-on-five and on special teams, but he wears an A on his sweater for a good reason and you can bet that he'll give whatever he has.
Special teams play had a great deal to do with the outcome of Game 5. The Hawks were 2-for-3 on the power play, the Wings were 0-for-4. On both of Chicago's man-advantage goals, Detroit misplayed the puck when it had a chance to clear it, giving it right back to the Hawks shortly before they scored. The Wings weren't helped by some unusually undisciplined play, either, especially from Justin Abdekader. Those are areas that Babcock will definitely want improved in Game 6.
These are two excellent skating puck possession teams filled with star power, skill, grit and pride. The Wings have had to battle all season, so being in a tough fight is nothing new to them. However, the Hawks didn't face much adversity during their remarkable 36-7-5 regular season or in their five-game first round triumph over Minnesota. Teams don't often breeze to a deep playoff run, much less the Stanley Cup, without having to surmount obstacles, and if the Hawks are to win the championship, they're going to have to overcome their first major challenge of the year, the one presented by the playoffs' most interesting upstart: the Red Wings.