For what could be the last time, the Detroit Red Wings are playing at home tonight. Wednesday’s Game 5 ended in defeat, putting the Red Wings in a 3-2 hole within a best-of-seven series. Detroit’s season continues with a win tonight, and ends with a loss. In one sense, it’s as simple as that. In a different sense, the Red Wings are exactly where one would expect them to be.
Unpredictable victories have been routine in this series, with three games going to overtime, and a fourth coming down to essentially one goal. Every game – except Game 3 – could have gone to either team. There isn’t another path that this series should have taken. It was supposed to be this close, and the games have played out much as one would expect: Neither team has a decisive edge despite having plenty of opportunities to win each game, and the team with home-ice advantage currently leads by one game.
Detroit and Anaheim are evenly matched. Both feature superstar forwards. Each team has an unheralded, yet improving defensive corps. The two goalies, Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings and Jonas Hiller of the Ducks, are a solid pair that don’t get the attention earned by their stellar play. These two even teams have played five even games, for the most part.
With the series shifting back to Detroit, and the Red Wings winning the two even-numbered games, it’s essentially the Red Wings’ time to win. Everything is set up for a Detroit victory, before a Game 7 where anything can happen.
This puts Detroit at a crossroads. The Red Wings have a lot of variables in their performance in this series, all of which can trend positively or negatively, in a close series that can go either direction.
Take the Red Wings’ control of four periods in the last two games. In four of six full periods, Detroit outshot Anaheim while keeping the play almost entirely in the Ducks’ end, but only was able to score three times in those 80 dominant minutes. Positively, it’s clear that the Wings can control the play, even after the loss of Dan DeKeyser in Game 2. When the Red Wings are on their game, Anaheim can be shut down. In terms of scoring, the goals should and will come if the Wings can control the play. Negatively, the Wings are controlling the play with not much to show for it. Detroit had 3-0 and 4-1 leads in Game 2, and a 41-24 shot advantage through regulation time in Game 4. Yet, both of those wins needed overtime, since the Wings couldn’t put a game away like Anaheim did in Game 3. Even if the Wings control the play, can Detroit score enough to win two straight games?
Another example? The Red Wings’ youth and inexperience. Detroit has a roster almost entirely comprised of players elevated into new roles, rookies or newcomers to Stanley Cup playoff hockey, and guys in their first season wearing the Winged Wheel. When everything comes together, this team clicks into the kind of hockey that fans cherish.
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Examples of that include the four-game winning streak to end the year, and the perfect puck control of Game 4. On the other hand, when rookies make mental errors in the heat of the moment, that youth becomes an obvious point of blame. Joakim Andersson’s defense at the end of Game 5, lifting the stick of Nick Bonino instead of playing the puck, is an example of that. It’s a bad play, one that lost Detroit the game, but he’ll learn from it.
It’s a marked difference from past seasons, where the Red Wings came into the playoffs with a reliable, playoff-tested roster. The Red Wings are a team built on loyalty and succession, with this season proving to be difficult due to an inconsistency that the Red Wings never seemed to have.
Which brings me to the images throughout this column, and to Game 6. Those three pictures are the ticket stubs from the three games At Joe Louis Arena from this playoff round, and also represent the three keys to a Red Wings victory in Game 6 and beyond.
The first ticket, for home game #1, is of Henrik Zetterberg, in his first season as Red Wings captain. After the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom, the Wings suffered through a rough season while they adjusted to the loss of a defensive pillar. Ultimately, in times of chaos, the Red Wings’ biggest stars step up their game. Steve Yzerman came through with clutch goals, year after year. Lidstrom did the same. Despite three assists alongside Pavel Datsyuk’s goal and three assists, and two assists in Game 5, Zetterberg hasn’t had a defining game. Game 6 should be that game for him.
The second ticket, for home game #2, is of Damien Brunner, the Swiss phenom who currently leads the Wings in
playoff points. Brunner came out of nowhere to become ascoring sensation in his rookie year, and that’s translated somewhat to the playoffs. Like so many other Red Wings, Damien has been inconsistent in his big moments. After a Game 3 giveaway that led to Anaheim’s second goal, Brunner was the overtime hero in Game 4. If he (and the other young Wings) can keep their heads into the game, and play up to their potential, the Red Wings will win on Friday.
The third ticket, for tonight’s home game #3, is of Jimmy Howard. Somehow, despite excellent play, Jimmy has become a scapegoat for a considerable portion of the Red Wings’ fanbase. There were some rough patches during the regular season, but Howard has settled down into an excellent playoff run, results be damned. The majority of the Ducks’ goals have come from bad defense, off of screens set inadvertently by Wings’ defenseman, and off of Detroit players unable to clear easy rebounds. The three losses have not been the fault of Jimmy Howard, yet he gets far too much of the blame. A Game 6 shutout should end that talk, and would start the process of getting Howard the respect he has earned.
The Red Wings should win Game 6. The Red Wings can win this series. We’ll see if the team can actually pull it off, starting at 8 tonight.
Gordon Fall has been around the Detroit sports scene for his entire life and even entered the world with a Red Wings hockey stick in hand. With a variety of connections around the Detroit area, Fall will be presenting the unspoken, yet optimistic truth of our city’s sports scene.