By Allan Muir
In the end, the Chicago Blackhawks simply weren't ready for their magical season to end.
With their playoff lives on the line, the desperate Hawks went into overdrive in the third period, getting goals from Michal Handzus, Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik on a penalty shot to erase a 2-1 deficit and knock off the Detroit Red Wings, 4-3, setting up a winner-takes-all Game 7 on Wednesday night in Chicago.
After controlling the play for 30 of the first 40 minutes, the young Wings were overwhelmed by Chicago's aggressive forecheck and relentless net drive in the final stanza. Although they outshot the Hawks 10-8 in the period, the Wings gave up too many premium chances when they should have been twisting the knife into the Presidents' Trophy winners.
After finding another level over the past two games, meanwhile, the veteran Hawks look primed to send the Wings home for a summer of regret.
Here are a few thoughts and observations from Game 6:
• "We realized it was a do-or-die situation," captain Jonathan Toews said of Chicago's remarkable third-period comeback. "We weren't playing our best hockey [to that point] and we were very conscious of that and it was the toughest game of the series, especially when they went up 2-1. They were flying and got the crowd going, but credit to our guys for not getting fazed."
True enough. After a strong first 10 minutes, the Hawks let the Wings carry the pace through the end of the second period. Given the situation, it shouldn't have taken them that long to grab control of the contest, but Chicago ultimately found a way. That's what good teams do.
• Give a good chunk of the credit to Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, who tweaked his lines heading into the final frame to fuel the comeback. He moved Bickell onto the top line alongside Toews and Marian Hossa, and the burly winger did exactly what he was supposed to. While his linemates battled for the puck in the corner, he headed to the net, outmuscled Brendan Smith for position and was perfectly situated to pick up Toews' rebound and deposit it in the open side to give Chicago the lead 5:48 into the period.
That Toews was out there at that moment was another coup for Quenneville. Despite Detroit having the last change, he did a masterful job of getting his captain on and off the ice to escape the blanket coverage of Henrik Zetterberg.
• Facing elimination, the Hawks' best players have been their best players. Toews rebounded from a dreadful, undisciplined start to the series with two strong efforts. Tonight, he won the draw that led to the first goal and he assisted on two others. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were forceful on the blueline. Hossa and Patrick Sharp were brilliant in all three zones. These guys lived up to their paychecks. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have had their moments, but they haven't raised their games to meet the moment. It's nice that Patrick Eaves and Damien Brunner lit the lamp, but this is the time for stars to shine. They'll get one more chance in Game 7.
• Apparently the message in between the second and third periods was, "Win this one for Corey." In other words, Chicago netminder Corey Crawford has won his share of games for the team this season. Let's bail him out for that weak goal that gave Detroit the 2-1 lead heading into the second intermission. Fair to say it was a softie by Joakim Andersson, a 50-foot unscreened wrister from the top of the left circle. It appeared to be a bit of a knuckler, but from that distance, Crawford had plenty of time to pick it up.
While the Hawks did the heavy lifting at the other end, Crawford regrouped and took care of his own business. He made a nice stop on a late Datsyuk bid, and broke up a pass from Gustav Nyquist that would have set up Brunner alone in the slot. Nice to see him get past that Crawford 2012 moment and remind everyone that the 2013 version is more than capable of guiding this team all the way.
• Interesting stat: That was Andersson's first career playoff goal, making him the fifth Red Wing to notch that milestone marker in this series. That tells you all you need to know about how young Detroit's lineup is.
• I'm sure the state of Illinois feels differently, but that was a weak call that put Frolik at the center ice dot for a penalty shot midway through the third. Full marks to him for blocking Carlo Colaiacovo's shot in Chicago's end and then forcing the defender to foul him as he broke in on Howard, but since Colaiacovo's love tap didn't hamper his ability to get a shot off, it was a pretty aggressive call. It'd be different if the game had been officiated closely, but they were playing by prison rules most of the night. It's the inconsistency that makes this call tough to swallow.
That said, Frolik made the most of his chance with a nifty forehand/backhand move that baffled Howard, beating him high to the glove side. Hawks fans have to wonder where that skill was during the regular season when he scored just three goals and had a pathetic 3.1 shooting percentage -- the lowest on the team among those who actually lit the lamp.
• Colaiacovo had a few rough moments in the third, losing battles along the boards, getting caught out of position more than once, and ending the night with a Corsi of -5, worst among Detroit's defensemen. So why is it that he played just 2:55 in the second period but was bumped to 6:21 in the third, with his average shift going from 35 seconds to 54? He had three shifts where he was caught in his own zone way too long, each lasting over 1:12 -- double his normal shift -- and each time he was back on the ice for his next go-around. Have to wonder why the coaching staff kept tapping him on the shoulder.
• It was a rough night for Brendan Smith, too. It's one thing to be pushed around by Bickell, but there's no excuse for being wildly out of position on Handzus' goal, allowing him an eternity alone in front of Howard to pick his spot and tie the game. Maybe that's a good sign, though. The rookie had an off-night in Game 4 and responded with a strong effort in Game 5. Can he deliver another bounce-back effort on Wednesday?
• After being a non-factor for both teams through the first four games, play with the extra man has had an impact on the last two decisions. Chicago scored on two of their final three chances to carry them to victory in Game 5, then used the power play to score the critical first goal in Game 6. Hossa's tally was a dagger, scored just nine seconds into the man advantage when he got position on Zetterberg and tapped in a rebound.
The Wings failed to click on any of their three chances, and are now just 1-for-22 in the series. More troubling than the 0-fer, though, is Detroit's inability to use a glorious opportunity to bury the Hawks. An ill-advised high sticking penalty to Michal Rozsival with 2:23 left in the second period gave the Wings the chance to run their lead to 3-1 and put Chicago in a deeper hole. Detroit kept the puck in the offensive zone and managed to land four shots on net, but couldn't finish, thanks to Crawford's finest stretch of play on the night.
If the Wings end up blowing it in Game 7, they'll look back at their miserable power play as a major failing.