By Allan Muir
To a man, the Chicago Blackhawks came out of their first-round series with the Minnesota Wild saying they had to take their game up a level if they hoped to continue on the path to the Stanley Cup. They proved tonight that they weren’t just flapping their gums.
After a stodgy first period, the Hawks seriously ramped up their attack on the way to a convincing 4-1 win over the Red Wings in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series.
Marian Hossa opened the scoring for Chicago in the first, with Johnny Oduya, Marcus Kruger and Patrick Sharp tallying in the third. Damien Brunner replied for Detroit after Hossa’s goal, but that was all the Wings could muster.
If not for the heroics of goalie Jimmy Howard, who stopped 38 of the 41 shots he faced, things would have been a lot worse for the visitors. The Hawks came at Detroit’s defenders in waves, overwhelming them with numbers or sheer tenacity and pinning them in their own zone for long, exhausting stretches. Howard made some big saves along the way — his skateblade stop on Dave Bolland’s breakaway bid was a highlight — but too often he was left on his own while his defenders stood still or were caught looking the other way while their checking assignments skated unmolested into the slot.
This was a statement game from Chicago. Now it’s up to the Red Wings to prove they can match it.
A few more observations from the series opener:
• There were three reasons the Hawks won this game. First: their penalty kill. Detroit had three power-play chances, including back-to-back opportunities late in the first, and barely got a sniff. Chicago was aggressive, pushing the Wings to the outside and taking away their time. The Wings had some momentum in the first, but those kills snuffed it. Chicago has now killed all 20 shorthanded situations they’ve faced in the playoffs.
• Second reason: Chicago’s forecheck. Their forwards were relentless, hounding Detroit’s defense into rushed decisions and turnovers. This group led the league in takeaways during the regular season, and they were at their larcenous best tonight, outstripping the Wings 11-4. That’s the kind of pressure that takes a mental toll over the course of a series.
• Third reason: The Blackhawks got pucks to the net. A lot of pucks. Chicago outshot the Wings 36-14 during the second and third periods, and fired 64 at Howard over the course of the game. Outside of a few bad decisions early on (like Jonathan Toews passing off while he stood in the crease in the opening minute), the Hawks were committed to testing Howard every chance they got. That paid off nicely.
• Cute kids, cute puppies and meet-cutes: these all are good things. Cute hockey? That’s losing hockey, and that’s something Detroit should realize by now. Over and over, the Wings decided to decline a straight path to the net and opt for a drop pass to no one or a cross-crease pass that got lost in a maze of defensive sticks. And these mistakes weren’t made by deferential kids looking to set up their superstar teammates. This was Danny Cleary, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, guys who should know better. Guys who, if the Wings are to have any chance at all, have to know better. Pretty passing may look great on the highlights, but at this time of year, playing ugly wins hockey games. The Wings have to get in touch with their greasy side and put every puck on the net. Remember how their only goal was scored: Brunner took a low-percentage bid from outside, but followed his shot. When Corey Crawford bobbled it, he was there to poke in the rebound. Funny how easy that is.
• It wasn’t just that Detroit’s Brendan Smith was awful tonight. It’s that the Hawks were able to smell blood in the water and take advantage of the youngster, and that made a difference. Chicago’s first goal was all on him after he twice failed to clear the zone on a penalty kill, allowing Sharp to strip him of the puck and set up Hossa for the one-timer. And while he only had one official giveaway on his ledger, Smith coughed the puck up at least three times, including a pair of brutal decisions that saw him throw one out into the middle of the zone instead of up the boards. Coach Mike Babcock might need to minimize Smith’s exposure from here on.
• Another element the Wings need to address is their gap control. A problem for the team all season, it reared its ugly head more than once tonight as Detroit’s defenders were forced to throw pucks away (or worse, directly turn them over) because the forwards weren’t close enough to simplify the transition.
• I wasn’t sure if Valtteri Filppula or Johan Franzen played tonight, but there they were on the score sheet, a minus-three between them. What a nothing game from a couple of players the Wings desperately need in high gear if they’re going to negate Chicago’s depth advantage.
• There probably won’t be much said about Crawford after this one, and that’s fine by the Hawks. He looked shaky early on, bobbling a couple of chances and losing control of his rebounds, as he did on the Brunner goal. But he settled down nicely as the game moved on and made the stops he had to make.
• At some point, the Wings have to figure out how to come out ahead in the third period. After entering the final stanza tied 1-1 tonight, they were outscored 3-0 by the Hawks. They’re now down 15-5 in the third through eight playoff games. With so many tight games turning in the later stages, that’s not a sustainable plan.
• Maybe not a big deal after Marcus Kruger scored a goal in the victory, but can Joel Quenneville keep putting him out on the draw when he goes 0-11 in the opener? Didn’t hurt the team tonight, but that won’t cut it as the series progresses.