Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Finishing Off a Wounded Dragon...

Tonight at roughly 8PM; give or take the traditional epic 10 minute snooze fest that JLA pre-game introductions have become, the Detroit Red Wings will attempt to take a 3-1 lead over the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks in their Stanley Cup Playoff series. Unfortunately tomorrow morning marks the start of the biggest convention my company does all year so I'll be up packing boxes all night and won't be able to watch the game. To be perfectly honest with you, I'm not all that heartbroken about it because a life time of watching playoff hockey tells me the Wings will probably lose tonight. That doesn't mean they are going to lose the series mind you, I still feel like the match-up is anyone's to take. The defining moments in this series however will occur in game 5 and 6, not game 4 for a number of reasons that seem to be escaping Wings fans:

1) Chicago is really, really good.  At the start of the series Red Wings nation was rightfully afraid of the talent the Chicago Blackhawks brought to the table. We had just spent the better part of 20 years watching an offensively talented puck possession team roll 4 lines and rotate 3 defensive pairings and we understood exactly how dominant the Hawks could be. They were literally a modern reflection of the elite Red Wings teams we'd cheered in 2008 and 2009. Look folks, I could give a rat's ass about Chicago's streak but you don't go 36-7-5 by accident in the NHL. The Hawks are more talented than Detroit and more frighteningly they are deeper as well. This isn't to say the Hawks have every advantage in the series, so far Jimmy Howard has outplayed Corey Crawford in net by a slight margin and he has a better track record in the playoffs than Crawford as well. Additionally the Wings are getting an amazing push from their 3rd line which is working to minimize Chicago's advantage in depth; it's now 4 lines vs 3 lines and some checkers instead of 4-2 as most predicted before the season. Unfortunately the gap on the blue line remains massive; Kronwall has been a rock and Ericsson has been a revelation but Smith's play varies wildly from shift to shift and I'm still literally holding my breath every time Kindl or Quincey touch the ice. Meanwhile Chicago rolls out Keith, Seabrook, Hjamarsson, Oduya and Rozsisval for roughly 20 minutes each with little drop off or change in play. The fact that the Red Wings aren't suffering much in the face of this horrible mismatch is a testament to the coaching masterpiece Mike Babcock is working in these playoffs. Regardless, at least on paper the "better" team is behind 2-1 at the moment.

2) The Blackhawks are playing like crap right now.  As a Wings fan, this should be an old story by now: uber-talented team struggles to match the intensity of plucky low-seeded underdog early in the series. They fall behind early before waking up and blowing out the series in 2-3 straight games. Hell, I think the Red Wings patented that script against the Vancouver Canucks a few years back. Right now Chicago looks nervous, frustrated and some of the younger players may even be bordering on panic. You can see it every time the Hawks try to break out of their own zone: the d-man waits a second too long to move the puck and their forwards, particularly superstar Jonathan Toews are making too many moves at both blue lines. In some cases this is about players trying too hard to make a difference and playing Hero-hockey as a result and that's good for the Red Wings. Some of it however is simply a matter of positioning; for whatever reason the Hawks puck carrier in the neutral zone keeps getting trapped on one side of the ice while his line-mates linger on the other. The is allowing the Red Wings to cut the rink it half and prevents the Hawks from using their speed and slick passing game to attack a rather suspect Wings' defense. If I can see this you can certainly bet Joel Quennville can see it and I would expect the Hawks to make significant changes before tonight's game. They'll probably work to shorten their passes in the neutral zone and encourage one Winger to stay much closer to the puck carrier as they break out. This will force the Wings to make athletic rather than simple positioning plays to break up the rush and frankly the Wings aren't as good athletes as the Hawks are. Naturally the Wings will try to counter, probably by checking everything that moves towards the puck but they aren't built for physical dominance; yet. Detroit's current roster is a mix of older, smaller hold overs from the previous team philosophy and bigger more athletic youngsters (if you call 27 young, Red Wings spend forever in the minors) from more recent drafts. At this point the team is still more of the old guys than the new so Detroit is forced to play a primarily skill based game despite being a more physical team than the Hawks. Whether it's a matter of relaxing, positioning or simply playing up to their ability the Chicago Blackhaws can and probably will play better in this series than they have so far from here on out.

3) Passion, pride and the heart of a champion live in Chicago too.  While it's easy to look at the birth certificates of the players involved and give the intangibles (experience, heart, hockey IQ) edge to the Red Wings this would be a drastic overstatement. It's been 4 long years since Detroit lost a heartbreaking game 7 to Pittsburgh in the Cup finals and 3 years since Chicago hoisted it's first Cup in eons on the back of a team too talented to fail. Both rosters have undergone extensive changes but overall Chicago has more of it's Cup winning roster left than the Red Wings do. While overall I do think the Red Wings are slightly smarter and slightly tougher than Chicago the rest of the argument is pretty much a wash. Chicago is a proud team that has tasted recent success and knows how to deal with playoff pressure. If they have a weak link in that department it's goalie Corey Crawford; he was not the net-minder of record when the Blackhawks won the cup (that guy plays in SJ now) and his play in last season's playoffs is considered by many to be *the* reason Chicago was knocked out. That's a tremendous amount of pressure on one man but it's important to remember that there is *always* a tremendous amount of pressure on the starting goaltender of a legitimate Stanley Cup contending playoff team. Crawford has looked brilliant at times in this series and decidedly average at others; he's not a brilliant goaltender but he's athletic and so far he's made his best saves under considerable duress. Waiting for Crawford to crack doesn't seem like a reasonable option for the Red Wings because so far there's no evidence that he's going to. As a team, the Blackhawks have to know that their backs are up against the wall and when a champion is on the ropes he responds with a furious counter-attack. The first 10 minutes of tonight's game should be very interesting; I hope Jimmy Howard had his Wheaties this morning because the Blackhawks are likely going to feed him a lot of rubber early on.

4) Regression to the mean is a thing.  Just as Chicago's stellar play in the regular season is starting to look like a mirage the Red Wings themselves have undergone a seemingly rapid transformation. Gone is the inconsistent, skittish team that struggled to string together multiple victories in the regular season. They have been replaced by hardened playoff veterans who are seemingly always in the right place at the right time, two steps ahead of the mere mortals who play for the Blackhawks. Does anyone really think this narrative can continue? Yes a reasonable argument can be made that Detroit is simply a better team now then they were for much of the regular season. The new guys brought into the lineup took a while to get comfortable and veteran players like Zetterberg and Franzen always turn up their game in the playoffs. The problem is that simple experience doesn't explain the jump the Wings have made here; right now they look better than the team Detroit sent to the 1995 Stanley Cup finals. Can they really keep up this elite level of play? Another question that springs to mind immediately when thinking about this subject is: "just who the hell is Brendan Smith anyways?" Is he the big, skilled offensive d-man who makes 5 amazing plays a game? Or is he the bumbling fool who takes two stupid penalties a night to go with 1 or 2 spectacular giveaways? Can he possibly be both? As previously mentioned I have little faith in Kindl to maintain his current level of play and I think Quincey has been basically terrible but Babcock is doing a good job of hiding him. It's also fair to ask if the Red Wings aren't due for a "Jimmy Howard forgot it was the playoffs" game. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Red Wings goalie and I think he's playing at an elite level right now but historically Jimmy has at least one game per series where he lets in a couple of floaters and you wonder why the Red Wings pay him so much. I'd like to believe that phase of his career is over but old habits die hard and until he proves otherwise the fear will always lurk in the back of my mind. One player I do believe has truly "made the leap" for the Wings is Gustav Nyquist; this kid is simply a natural goal scorer with incredibly soft hands and after half a season in the NHL he's starting to figure out where the sweet spots around the net are. I don't say this often but Gustav is a joy to watch and gives me a tremendous amount of hope for the future of the Red Wings (assuming we lock him up long term: come on Kenny earn your paycheck!). I'm also not worried about Joakim Andersson or Damien Brunner; both players are operating within their abilities and while they aren't special every shift they aren't making huge mistakes that cost us goals either. I'm actually starting to wonder if Cleary is done as a professional hockey player; he's an amazing talent but injuries keep piling up and it's time to question if his body has anything left to give the Red Wings at this point.
In light of the above and with the general understanding that momentum in hockey doesn't really exist until someone is facing an elimination game, I'm going to predict a 4-3 Hawks win in overtime. I wish I could say this was a reverse jinx but truthfully nobody thought the Wings were going to win this series in 5 games before it started so it seems pretty ridiculous to assume so now. There are simply too many things Detroit needs to go right for them to win this game. Chicago has to remain tight, they need to fail to make adjustments, Detroit's youngster's have to keep playing out of their minds and Jimmy needs to stay elite for 60 minutes. The Chicago Blackhawks will expend every ounce of energy they have to avoid going home down 3-1 in the series and while I think the Red Wings will match their intensity the Hawks probably have enough to simply "take" this single game. I told anyone who would listen at the start of the series that if the Red Wings are going to win this they'll do it in 6-7 games and nothing I've seen so far gives me reason to doubt that prediction.

Naturally of course as a rabid Wings fan, I hope this above prediction is wrong. A 3-1 series lead would absolutely destroy the Blackhawks' psyche and Babcock is a good enough coach to get the better of Quennville once in 3 tries to advance. Did I just say advance? Now I'm starting to sound like every other Red Wings fan.

- The Sportsball Chic

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