Monday, May 27, 2013

Closing Time

The psychology of a best of 7 NHL playoff series is a fascinating animal. Each series opens quietly; the early leader will downplay the importance of the games and the loser will talk about the need to (re)gain home ice advantage. While the first 4 matches of any series are important, more often than not they merely serve to establish the narrative of the closing games. There's an old chestnut in hockey that goes something like "it's not a playoff series until someone loses a home game" and to a degree that's true. At some point however either the home team does lose an important game or someone is facing elimination and the series transforms into a whole different beast. With the pressure ratcheted up to maximum the series actually shrinks; the focus becomes winning individual periods or even individual shifts. Momentum lurches back and forth with every scoring chance and mistakes are usually punished with laser like focus and a flashing red light. In these closing games winning feels like paradise, while losing guarantees 48 hours of uncomfortable questions and unrelenting pressure; both for the players and their fans.

The Detroit-Chicago series entered "closing time" for the Blackhawks sometime around the halfway mark of game 4. As the match unfolded it became apparent that Jimmy Howard was inside the heads of the majority of the Hawks forwards and fear quickly turned to desperation. The Wings won game 4 by a score of 2-0 but not before Chicago tested Jimmy Howard in every way imaginable in the game's closing period. Facing elimination, the Hawks responded with just about as good of a home playoff game as you can play in game 5. Corey Crawford smothered the Wings early while the Hawks unleashed a hellacious forecheck in the offensive zone. They controlled the puck for large stretches of the game and took advantage of some spotty officiating to establish a physical presence early and often. If a team could play every game like Chicago played game 5 they would win the Stanley Cup in less than 20 games. Of course, such a team would probably tear itself apart long before the finals; the adrenaline and psychological pressure would eventually wear them down to nothing. This is the power and magic of closing time in the NHL playoffs.

For the Detroit Red Wings and their loyal fans, closing time in this series begins tonight. Early in game 5 the Red Wings did their best to match Chicago's intensity and for a while managed to hang with the Hawks. As the score started to slip away from them however the Wings couldn't find another gear. Once Kronwall was banged up you got the sense that the team and coaches were already thinking about game 6. While I'm sure Don Cherry would declare that action a mortal sin against hockey it makes a lot of sense from Detroit's perspective. The Hawks were at home, flying around like possessed men and feeding off a crowd that had grown desperate for a reason to cheer. More to the point the Wings were rattled and hadn't established much offensively since the back half of the first period. It says something about just how badly you've been dominated when a team loses a game 4-1 and it can still be argued that the goalie was their best player. While you never want to consider a game "unwinnable" the Red Wings had to know their odds of closing out the series in game 5 weren't exactly high.

Of course, this is why you build 3-1 series leads and brings me back to my point about the first 4 games merely establishing the narrative for the closing moments of a series. Up 3-1 Detroit didn't have to panic when the Blackhawks transformed into the 1970 edition of the Boston Bruins. The team's hard work early in the series gave them the luxury of returning home up 3-2 with another chance to close out the Hawks' season. As narratives go that's still a pretty good story with a likely happy ending; if the Wings win game 6 at the JLA nobody is even going to remember how they were bullied off the ice in Chicago. If however the Hawks were somehow able to march into Detroit and take Game 6 from Mike Babcock's cold, dead hands that would change the narrative significantly. The story would become an athletically superior Blackhawks team waking up on the brink of elimination and imposing it's will on Detroit to tie up the series. Pressure would migrate from Chicago to Detroit in the blink of an eye and along with it uncomfortable questions about Detroit's ability to compete with the President's Trophy winning Blackhawks. It would also likely damage the confidence of a surprisingly young Wings team that is just now starting to realize it's potential. In short; losing game 6 would be a very, very bad thing for the Red Wings.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, closing time begins tonight for the Detroit Red Wings just as surely as it began in game 5 for the Chicago Blackhawks. The pressure is on both teams now; Chicago to stay alive and Detroit to avoid squandering a 3-1 series lead. Make no mistake, while a Wings loss won't end the series it will erase all the good will their playoff run has inspired. Detroit faces a "must-win" game tonight in almost every possible sense. In my heart I believe they will respond but I can't lie; I'll be holding my breath until the final whistle sounds. Let's hope I have a hard time hearing it over all the cheering in the JLA.

- The Sportsball Chic

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