Thursday, May 30, 2013

Giving the Devil His Due - Why Chicago Outlasted Detroit in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

For a bunch of walking dead men, the Chicago Blackhawks sure looked good last night. In fact, as the red light went on and the United Center exploded in celebration I swear I saw Hawks goaltender Corey Crawford burst into a little jig. Staggered but unbowed the Hawks have indeed survived to fight another day. Instead it is the Red Wings who are vanquished after Chicago completed a stunning comeback from a 3-1 series deficit with a 2-1 game 7 overtime win at home. Although they began the series as a heavy favorite, after 4 matches few in the media gave them much chance of forcing a game 7, let alone winning it. To a man the Hawks insisted they were still in this series after game 4 and true to their word they proved everyone (myself included ) wrong. While the moment provided relief and vindication for the Hawks it will likely gnaw on Red Wing's nation for a long while. At some later date Wings fans will be able to appreciate just how far the team came this season but that moment is not now. Now, all the exists is an empty feeling and one resounding question; how did this happen?  Despite genuine risk to my fragile psyche, I sat down to objectively analyze how the series changed after the Wings took a 3-1 lead on May 20th:

Speed Kills: Heading into the series it was generally understood by both the media and fans of either squad that Chicago was the better skating team. Long years of struggle at the bottom of the league table have populated the Hawks roster with some of the finest athletes in today's game. Toews, Kane and Hossa in particular can flat out fly but there isn't much drop off in terms of pure skating ability as you go down the Hawks roster. The only Hawks forward I would describe as slow is Michal Handzus and he's primarily a "win the faceoff and crash to the net" type of player; virtually all of their d-men are excellent skaters.  To be clear the Wings are by no means a slow hockey team but they don't have the same kind of thoroughbreds up and down the lineup that the Hawks do. In the first 4 games of the series, the Wings used excellent positioning and Chicago's proclivity for "hero-hockey" to all but negate this advantage. Hawks forwards seemed content to jostle for the puck in confined quarters and found a Wings team full of expert stick-handlers more than happy to comply. The final 3 games were a different story however; Chicago started spreading it's forwards out more and focused on moving the puck with slick, sometimes creative passing. This forced the Red Wings to defend more of the ice at any given time while still maintaining perfect positioning against faster Hawks players. If the Wing's defender wasn't in proper position the Hawks immediately forced the puck in his direction to create a one-on-one race that favored Chicago heavily. By my estimation roughly half of Chicago's goals in the final 3 games of the series came at the end of shifts where a Hawk had simply beaten the Wings to an open puck through superior speed just prior. Perhaps the most obvious example of the Hawks speed advantage however came in the 2nd periods of games 5 and 7 where every "long" Wing line change seemed to turn into an odd man rush for Chicago. I'm going to have nightmares about the 3 on 1 that led to Chicago's first goal in game 7 for months; Detroit made a terrible line change but that play doesn't happen without Chicago's ridiculous overall team speed.

Stretch Until You Break: I don't know about you folks but if I ever see another long stretch pass up the middle of the ice that completely handcuffs the Wings defense, I might throw up. For those of you who've never been to a hockey camp; a stretch pass is a filthy play designed to bypass the neutral zone and create instant offense when the right kind of defender gains control of the puck. You can find a video here but in essence the d-man skates backward with the puck, giving himself room to unleash a long pass to the opposite blue-line. Ideally this long pass is then picked up by a streaking forward who breaks in on the defense with a head of steam and creates a good scoring chance. This is a difficult play and requires defenders who can both skate and pass at an elite level to pull off consistently; not to mention the kind of forwards who can win the one-on-one battles the play creates. Unfortunately Chicago has both of these commodities in numbers and after game 4 they seemed to build much of their offense around the stretch pass. Faced with the option of stepping up to cut off the pass (and risking embarrassment) or trying to win individual battles against the Hawks, young Wing defenders all too often chose the latter path with predictable results. An elite defender can spring forward and cut off this pass to create a rush the other way; more than once I found myself wishing Lidstrom was still around to punish the Hawks for their impudence. Unfortunately Lidstrom is gone and the Wings never found a way to counter this play effectively so Chicago literally ran them into the ground with it in the final 3 games.

Football on Ice:  As I've previously discussed here on the blog the officiating in this series was laughably poor at times; specifically at various points during games 4 through 7. Now. before you assume I'm a Wings fan crying about the referees because her team lost please understand that I believe the officiating was horrible, not biased. Chicago also suffered from some inexplicably bad calls; including two that directly took goals off the board when replays indicated that the play was legal. It takes a special kind of incompetence to screw up 3 calls that directly add or remove a goal from the scoreboard in a mere 4 games on national television; somehow these refs were up to the task. Where the terrible reffing did favor Chicago however is how they adapted to it as the series continued and in that regard, the Red Wings only have themselves to blame. After getting frustrated with the refs in game 4 the Blackhawks came out in game 5 with a noticeable edge. Not only did they skate and hit harder but the Hawks started punishing the Wings physically with a variety of shoves, grabs, holds and gloves to the face at every opportunity; particularly away from the play. Originally the Hawks probably did this to send a message to Detroit with full intention of simply taking the penalties that might ensue as a result. When no penalties were forthcoming however the Hawks simply integrated the "rough stuff" into their regular play on the spot. Detroit, on the other hand struggled adapt to the general lawlessness of the final 4 games and it wasn't really until game 7 that they began openly shoving, clutching, holding and slashing to the full degree that the refs were allowing. All is fair in love, war and playoff hockey; the Wings did themselves a major disservice by not taking full advantage of the considerable leeway the officials were offering.

Corey Crawford Went Nuclear: After 4 games in the series the general consensus was that Jimmy Howard had given the Wings a noticeable advantage in goal over the Hawks. Chicago starter Corey Crawford hadn't been bad but he wasn't finding a way to steal games like Jimmy was either. In some ways Crawford's inexperience and dreadful play in last year's playoffs actually suggested he might be a weak spot in Chicago's lineup as the series progressed. All Crawford did was come out and hold the Wings to 5 goals over the next 3 contests; matching Howard clutch save for clutch save the entire way. These weren't routine saves either; by the second period of game 6 the Wings were flying around the Hawks net on a regular basis. If Crawford has one weakness, it's that he still struggles to control rebounds properly and is thus forced to make athletic saves on second and third shots more often than other goaltenders. True to form the Wings had numerous second chance attempts against Crawford in the series but for the most part came away empty handed as the Chicago goalie consistently "cleaned his own trash." Aside from losing track of a Joakim Andersson "knuckle-puck" in game 6, Crawford was absolutely sensational in the final 3 games. Frankly his overall series numbers make it clear that he wasn't really the problem in the first 4 games either: only allowing 14 goals in 7 games is impressive but his .929 save percentage against the Wings truly reveals how exceptional he was.

The Benefits of Experience: Let's face the facts; as tempting as it is to say the Hawks won the series because they're really good a certain degree of blame for blowing a 3-1 match lead has to fall on the Red Wings. Mike Babcock can only accomplish so much for the Wings from behind the bench; it falls on his young charges to properly execute the plays and concepts he creates to negate Chicago's significant talent advantage. If Brendan Smith stays with Michal Handzus at the start of the 3rd period in game 6 the Wings might be preparing to face LA now for example. I'd also be willing to bet that Babcock spent some time discussing Chicago's stretch pass with his team and can only imagine that he found their inability to anticipate the play just as frustrating as I did. Naturally mainstays like Kronwall and Zetterberg stepped up as the series progressed but even some of the Wings veteran players failed to show up when it counted. Pavel Datsyuk had a relatively quiet series but Johan Franzen was absolutely brutal at times in the offensive zone; wasting multiple glorious scoring chances with Chicago on the ropes in game 6 and 7 alone. Whether it was young players, old players or guys who probably just don't have enough talent to execute the scheme, things came unraveled for Detroit after the first 4 games.  Over the final 3 contests it felt like Chicago took advantage of every defensive lapse, positioning mistake and bad shot the Wings made to eventually wear down Jimmy Howard and bag the goals they needed to advance.

Over Time, True Quality Shines Through: The simple truth is that right now the Chicago Blackhawks are a better team than the Red Wings for a variety of reasons. They're faster, a little bit stronger, significantly deeper on defense, they have more scoring threats overall and they aren't in the process of breaking in half a squad worth of young prospects. In a short series Detroit could rely on Babcock's superior coaching and the stellar play of Jimmy Howard to negate these advantages but as the series dragged onward, Chicago's talent outshone the Wing's work ethic. It also bears mentioning here that as a team the Wings probably didn't deserve to be up 3-1 in the first place, although Jimmy Howard certainly did. Additionally after both teams alternated "no-show" performances in the first two games it was the Wings who lacked intensity in game 5 and the early portions of game 6. That surprised me frankly because this edition of the Red Wings had been playing virtual elimination hockey for well over a month now. Elite teams don't lose focus when the prize is within reach; despite it's championship pedigree, right now Detroit isn't truly good enough to be an elite squad and it showed over 7 games. Finally of course a number of key Red Wings were playing in their first ever Stanley Cup playoffs. Playoff hockey is essentially a whole different animal than it's regular season counterpart and there's no question that experience helps players adjust to the difference. When (not if) the Red Wings make the playoffs next season, the experience gained in this series will be invaluable. For now however, they'll have to settle for learning some hard lessons against an ultimately superior Blackhawk squad that simply would not die.

Though it pains me to say this, the better team won this series and did so in deserving fashion. When the chips were down Chicago found another level of play to operate on and although the Red Wings came excruciatingly close; they just couldn't quite keep up with the Hawks in the end. In time the pain from this loss will recede and this season will be remembered for all of the positives it brought to the Red Wings organization. A new generation of Red Wings burst onto the scene this year, young stars like Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Ericsson finally cashed in on some of their potential and Mike Babcock submitted a coaching job for the ages during the playoffs. For now however I'm going to grab a couple of cold ones, sit outside in the summer air and wonder what might have been if Danny Dekeyser was playing in Game 6 instead of Brendan Smith.

- Sportsball Chic


  1. As a Hawks fan (came across this article on Reddit), I think this is a great breakdown of the series. The only point I would argue with is in your Football on the Ice section. I think Chicago started to do more of the "away from the play garbage" because the Wings had been doing it all series and weren't getting called.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. Response to the article has been mostly positive but I have to admit you aren't the first Hawks fan to disagree with that Football on Ice point. Dunno, just writing about what I saw and I definitely felt Chicago played closer to the line than Detroit did in games 5-6. I didn't really talk much about the first 3 games so I didn't get a chance to mention how poor the reffing was against Chicago in game 3. To be fair, the reffing was BRUTAL for the Wings in game 6 so I kinda feel like that all evened up in the end.

    At the end of the day tho it's pretty obvious that the officials in this series were terrible, inconsistent and at times borderline malicious. I'm glad nobody died.

    Thanks for the comment and feel free to stop by and check out my blog again any time. I can't always write about Hockey but it's actually my favorite of the 4 major American pro sports. Good luck against LA; Quick is a beast but someone has got to beat him before he steals a Cup for LA.