The Malik Report
by George Malik on 05/02/11 at 10:37 PM ET
The first is that they’re up against some serious-ass odds, especially given that the supporting cast has left Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Howard without support, as spelled out by NHL.com’s Brian Hedger:
Detroit is just 5-21 all-time when losing the first two games of a playoff series and only 2-6 when facing the same situation during the team’s remarkable 20-year run of postseason appearances. Also, after dropping the first three games against the Sharks in the same round last season, Detroit lost that series in five games. When you include the 2010-11 regular season, the Red Wings have lost 10 of the previous 12 meetings against San Jose and appear to be completely flummoxed. Also working against them is a middling record at Joe Louis Arena during the regular season, even being booed off the ice a couple of times.
Hedger points out that the Wings rallied from 2-0 deficits against the Vancouver Canucks in 2002 and a 3-1 deficit to the Minnesota
North Stars in 1992, and some constants from those series literally remain on the Wings’ roster:
The Red Wings still have four players on the roster from that team, led by captain Nicklas Lidstrom. The other three are star center Pavel Datsyuk, power forward Tomas Holmstrom and gritty “Grind Line” original Kris Draper.
If the Red Wings claw their way out of a 2-0 hole this time, each of them will have to play a big role—whether it’s physically doing it on the ice or convincing younger teammates off the ice that it can be done.
When all Niklas Kronwall can do is block shots after a fantastic first-round performance, when Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader, and to some extent, Danny Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, Johan Franzen (nobody seems to point out that his new visor might be impeding his ability to make plays as much, if not more, than his ankle is) and Brian Rafalski have all disappeared, Brad Stuart, Jonathan Ericsson and Ruslan Salei have begun to chase puck carriers around the ice, and perhaps only Tomas Holmstrom and Jiri Hudler of all people are willing to do the dirty work around the net, there’s something wrong.
You could go with Hedger’s argument…
On the surface, the Sharks, coached by former Red Wings assistant Todd McLellan, simply appear to be the better team. They’ve won six of the last seven playoff games between the two and only allowed one goal in each of the first two games this season, both at HP Pavilion in San Jose. However, all six of those playoff wins were decided by a slim one-goal margin. The lone game that wasn’t was Detroit’s 7-1 rout of the Sharks in Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena last spring to make it a 3-1 series headed back to San Jose.
Or maybe you could argue that the leaders are leading as best as they possibly can, and that instead of heralding a new Sharks’ Dynasty, as the Mercury News’s Tim Kawakami does, or suggesting that the Wings need to tear down and rebuild—and you’re gonna be disappointed if the Sharks do win this series, Wings fans, because Babcock’s not going anywhere, McCrimmon’s not going anywhere, and it’s more likely than not at this point that the only guaranteed subtraction is Mike Modano and the only guaranteed addition is Jan Musak, because Kenny Holland didn’t tear down the Wings after last year’s ouster, and he doesn’t have much reason to do so given the Wings’ ability to handle the injury bug much better during this past regular season than they did the previous time around—the Wings aren’t just struggling for some reason that we can’t pinpoint against the Sharks.
Maybe they’re indecisive because they’re getting shafted. Even the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch is confused about the referees’ decisions when it comes to allowing the Sharks to scrum up the Wings and scrape ice in front of Jimmy Howard:
The battle between the San Jose Sharks and Detroit Red Wings has turned vicious. Hard checks. Scrums after the whistle. Even tactics by the Sharks in front Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard that would make Reggie Dunlop and the gang from the old Slap Shot movie proud.
And both teams are going to hear about it from league officials.
Officials could take care of the issue by calling an unsportsmanlike penalty against San Jose. The league would like to put a stop to it and, with a two-day break before Game 3 Wednesday in Detroit, it is expected the issue will be discussed. The rule regarding unsportsmanlike behaviour has a broad definition but was retooled when New York’s Sean Avery was waving his stick in front of New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur in the 2008 playoffs. The Sharks’ tactics this year could be considered similar.
The Wings, who trail 2-0 in the Western Conference semifinal, won’t resort to similar tactics on Sharks goalie Antti Niemi.
“We have to create more traffic first of all,” Detroit defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom said. “We have to be (at the net). He’s seeing the shots we’re taking and we just have to create more traffic in front of him and be harder.”
But while Garrioch’s worried about the following…
The NHL doesn’t want this series to turn into a joke. What’s happening now could be perceived that way.
Todd McLellan and Joe Pavelski issued a simple set of statements to the Mercury News’s Mark Emmons before departing for Detroit—that it’s Jimmy Howard’s own damn fault (you can watch McLellan’s comments, as well as those of Ian White and Ryane Clowe, via Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area):
McLellan agreed a penalty could be called, but that there’s no reason for one because the Sharks are not acting in an unsportsmanlike manner.
“We’re going to the net any time there’s a loose puck there, and we’re stopping in the blue paint,” McLellan said. “It’s as simple as that.”
One of those showers by Pavelski in Game 1 resulted in a shoving match with Howard, which earned both of them roughing penalties. But Pavelski said there is no intent.
“It’s not like we’re coming from long distances when the puck’s not there,” Pavelski said. “He’s bobbling pucks and we’re going hard. If the puck’s just laying there and he’s taking a while to cover it up, you go. You have to do it because if you swing away and the puck is just laying there for a tap-in, that would stay with you for a few weeks.”
So if you put on the Wings fans’ patented tinfoil hat for a moment, you might suggest that the referees’ decision to simply stare when the Sharks commit infractions and call penalties when the Wings do the same, given the fact that neither team is playing squeaky clean hockey or keeping their sticks at a less than parallel angle to the ice at all times, is a little spurious.
Two seasons in a row, somehow, one of the league’s most disciplined teams gets called when it commits penalties, while the Shane Doans and Taylor Pyatts of the world are allowed to blind-side Wings players, the Sharks’ hacks, whacks, and snow showers on Howard are ignored, and when Wings fans suggest that there’s something fishy going on, they’re laughed at, as usual, by a media corps that insists that not only are fans crazy for daring to question officials, but also that Red Wings fans deserve a disparate amount of criticism because, clearly, the Wings get all sorts of breaks all the time.
It’s as if the Tomas Holmstrom rules—the concept that because Holmstrom screens goalies, he’s allowed to be hacked, whacked, tripped, hooked, held, facewashed, mugged, and given everything but a prostate exam because that somehow comes with the territory, but should he ever retaliate, or goad an opponent into taking a penalty, Holmstrom has to go to the box with that opponent, because otherwise it “wouldn’t be fair,” or the concept that the standard of officiating for what constitutes “incidental contact” or “goaltender interference” can change based upon whether Tomas Holmstrom’s perceived to be interfering with a goaltender, regardless of whether he is or is not doing so—have been extended to the entire team.
So what can the Wings do?
First and foremost, they have to win battles for the puck via winger support to help generate and sustain possession and control of the puck in the offensive zone, because this series really will be determined by the Sharks or Wings possessing the puck and cycling it down low against their opponent more than their opponent does, and the Wings told MLive’s Ansar Khan that they may have to “chip and chase” to get into the offensive zone and then keep the puck there…
“We got to execute on them and be harder on the puck in their zone,” Babcock said. “The more of those 50-50 pucks you win, the more you’re going to have the puck.”
“They spend too much time in our zone tiring us out instead of us doing the opposite,” Brad Stuart said. “I don’t think we made it hard enough on their team. We just need to shoot more, get pucks in behind them a little better and that’ll help us.”
Said goaltender Jimmy Howard: “They’re playing well in their own end. They’re really making us work. We just got to keep throwing pucks at the net and keep pushing it. Continue to do things that make us successful. That’s spending as little time in our own zone and spending the majority of our shifts in theirs.”
And, as Khan suggests, that includes a much better effort during the second period, where the Wings have been out-shot 37-18 over the first two games, yielding penalties because they’re the ones chasing the Sharks’ cycling players and being ground down:
“Got to keep (their cycle) short. The longer it goes on the harder it is to stop,” Franzen said. “Need to have good effort to cut them off right away and try to get the puck out right away.”
Just how tiring is it to be caught on the ice when the Sharks cycle and grind the puck?
“Of course it is, if you’re stuck in there,” Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski said. “You always try to do that in the second period because you have easier change with the forwards. You got to try to limit those. That’s where your depth comes in. You got to give those guys a chance to rest.”
So what’s the solution? Or what are the solutions?
There are several, including better utilization of positional defense instead of chasing puck carriers (that usually results in penalties), crisper, sharper and faster puck movement through the neutral zone, and responding in kind to the Sharks’ treatment of Howard by making Niemi’s life miserable, even if it results in a “Holmstrom rule” penalty called against the Wings for bumping or snowing Niemi…
But it comes down to moving your feet. If the refereeing isn’t going to change, and over the course of the Wings’ past four playoff series, the bullseyes clearly remain affixed to Detroit’s jerseys as to the team the league seems to want to make an example of to show the rest of the league what playoff teams can and cannot do, all you can do is skate harder, skate faster, keep those feet moving and those sticks down, trying to gain body position and trying to get on the inside of puck battles instead of trying to use your stick to reach around your opponents.
You’ve gotta grind. You’ve gotta skate. You’ve gotta out-work, out-hustle, and out-grind your opponent, and you can’t let the fear of being called for whatever the other team is getting away with keep you from playing demonstrative, confident and sometimes a little arrogant, even if you’ve gotta fake it to make your opponent believe that you cannot be intimidated, and that they have neither “solved” you nor “own” you.
I don’t expect the refs to do anything differently. I don’t expect the Sharks to do anything differently, because they’re getting rewarded for the stuff that we see the Wings going to the penalty box for, the hooks, holds, slashes, grabs, moving picks, cheap stuff and scrums and snow showers after the whistle. They’re the ones scoring power play goals.
The Wings’ leaders need some back-up—Khan suggests as much, and suggests that the Wings might need to turn to a few veterans for some much-needed spark…
[T]he Red Wings’ high-powered offense hasn’t delivered, limited to one goal in each game. Part of that is because of Antti Niemi’s strong play (he’s stopped 57-of-59 shots for a .966 save percentage), but much of it also is because of Detroit’s forwards not being hard enough on San Jose’s defense. The balanced attack in the first-round sweep of Phoenix has been shut down, with the exception of Pavel Datsyuk. He has been dazzling, setting up both goals with great passes, but he can’t do it all himself.
Other forwards must deliver for the Red Wings to get back in this series. The onus is on their big, stocky wingers—Johan Franzen, Danny Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi—to spend more time grinding the puck in the offensive zone and being physical, making the Sharks’ defense work harder. That will create more traffic around Niemi and force him to work harder. Franzen clearly is not back to speed after missing Game 4 against the Coyotes with an ankle injury. He had no shots in Game 1 against the Sharks, but was more engaged in Game 2.
Bertuzzi has just two shots on goal in two games. He can’t get thrown off his game by the agitating Ben Eager. The pair, along with Cleary, have been held without a point in two games. All have another gear. So do Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula. Zetterberg, out three weeks with a sprained knee, skated much better in Game 2.
A lineup change is possible, if for no other reason than to shake things up. Kris Draper or Mike Modano might be inserted, perhaps in place of Jiri Hudler, who played well the first game, not so much the second game. Draper gives them another grinder, penalty killer and good faceoff man. But with the offense struggling, they might turn to Modano, who can play the point on the second power-play unit. Both can bring speed and fresh legs.
But the bottom line is that every Wings skater needs to move his feet, to play harder and more aggressively. That includes Howard, who needs to get out to the top of his crease more and make the Sharks understand that he’s going to push the referees himself by claiming more than blue paint as his inviolable territory.
There is no response for aggression in hockey but aggression in kind, for doing unto others before they do it to you, getting in on the forecheck and banging bodies, and working harder, working more efficiently, with more focus, hustle, drive, grit, determination, urgency, a higher competitive level, you name it…
But it all starts with moving your feet. And that’s what the Wings have to do to get back in this series, all while skating uphill.
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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.