The Malik Report
by George Malik on 05/17/13 at 07:54 AM ET
Aside from what I'm sure were league-wide suggestions that the Wings-Hawks series should simply end with handshakes on Saturday because one particularly crappy performance by the travel-weary Red Wings against a rested and doubtlessly deeper Blackhawksawks team means that Detroit's simply "outclassed" and should give up now (or maybe that's just how I read the blather as a tinfoil hat-wearing Wings fan, including listening to Steve Rosenbloom mock the "kiddie" Wings as "too soft," and the Windsor Star's Bob Duff of all people suggest that the series' result is a foregone conclusion)...
The Wings themselves took Thursday off, and they'll practice today ahead of tomorrow's Game 2 (1 PM EDT, NBC/CBC/97.1 FM, with post-game shows airing on WDIV and Fox Sports Detroit), but if there are two or three particular areas of emphasis for the Wings if they are to re-set the series come Saturday, the first area of emphasis involves simply playing fewer minutes penned into their own zone, as the Detroit Free Press's Mitch Albom suggests...
The young Wings may be forcing things. And that does generate offense for the opponent. But it’s not just the newbies. Jonathan Ericsson has been with the Wings for years, but still had his struggles in Game 1. He admitted as much after the game to the media:
“I think it took way too long for us to get out of our own zone and when we get out we don’t have any energy to attack. … We have to do a much better job in the D-zone and the D’s got to do a better job of getting the pucks up and the forwards have to do a better job in being open.”
Why are the Wings enduring this back end problem? It’s a combination of things, most notably the absence of Lidstrom and veteran defensemen Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart. These were guys who knew the art of moving the puck out of the zone, or digging at it until a teammate did.
For years we took for granted how easily Lidstrom could strip a guy coming into the Detroit end, then convert that strip into the perfect ricochet pass up ice that set the Wings in motion in the preferred direction. Without that magic, the puck stays in the Detroit end longer, and opponents have time to swarm.
“Unfortunately, all you guys in Detroit aren’t used to it,” ESPN’s Barry Melrose told me last week. “You’re used to a solid group of defensemen led by Lidstrom. … This is sort of new territory for you, young defensemen having to play all these minutes. You’re seeing your future. But unfortunately, it’s not as good as your past.”
Then again, it’s not supposed to be. All teams go through transitions. Babcock did manage to whip the Wings’ porous defense early in the season into very good status by the year’s end in goals-against. But some of that is Jimmy Howard. And it doesn’t address the extra work the Wings have to do just to get things started once they get the puck.
Honestly, at times, it’s like watching a man try to pass a kidney stone.
The Blackhawks are really good. And you simply won’t beat them if they have nearly three times as many takeaways (11-4) and twice as many shots (42-21) — the way they did in Game 1. One of the ways you limit both? Get out of your own end.
Albom was referring in particular to Brendan Smith's rough Game 1 performance, and I suppose that going forward, there's no doubt that what separates the Wings' future from that of the New Jersey Devils--who make the playoffs some years and not others because they've never meaningfully replaced Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer or Rafalski--involves both a healthy Danny DeKeyser returning to play like a missing puck-moving link, and more importantly, to scour the cap-compliance buy-out market for at least a top-three free agent defenseman to take some pressure off of the shoulders of Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall.
The best way I'd put it is this: if we are to make Wings-Hawks roster comparisons, they need a Johnny Oduya, another player who may not play the leading roles of Brent Seabrook or Duncan Keith, but instead, Oduya ensures that the Hawks' puck possession machine keeps rolling along by moving the puck up ice in a hurry.
If the Wings can get the puck out of their own zone, there's no doubt that the team needs to sustain possession and control of the puck in the offensive zone to ensure that the Hawks aren't the only team attacking in waves.
The fact that the Wings have been able to count on almost-every-game offense from both whoever Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk play with as well as the surprising Nyquist-Andersson-Brunner line is swell and all, but the combination of Zetterberg and Datsyuk being checked out of the offensive game on some occasions and the fact that Johan Franzen, Valtteri Filppula and Danny Cleary have been fantastically inconsistent have allowed the Wings opponents' second and third lines (see: the Koivu-Bonino-Winnik line and the Selanne lines for the Ducks and Patrick Sharp's line for chicago) to out-score Detroit's "secondary scorers."
In terms of replacing and/or augmenting the roster this summer, the Wings rather obviously eed to add a goal-scorer to the mix and to cut ties with some of their underperforming UFA's-to-be, but during this series, the Detroit News's John Niyo believes that the Wings need the Mule to step up...
Franzen got hot down the stretch, with seven goals in the final eight games of the regular season as the Red Wings rallied to clinch a playoff berth. And he did have three goals — all on the power play — in the first round against Anaheim, tied for the team lead with Henrik Zetterberg. But that gives him four in his last three playoff series dating to 2011, and he's a team-worst minus-7 this postseason.
Franzen was nicknamed "Mule" by Steve Yzerman back when the Red Wings roster had a few more thoroughbreds. And he's been this team's playoff X-factor almost ever since, at least since his breakout performance in 2007-08, the last time the Red Wings hoisted the Stanley Cup.
He's big, he's strong, he can skate and he boasts a terrific shot.
But at times he forgets to remind everyone about all that, and that's been the case on too many nights in April and May the last few years.
Wednesday's opener sure felt like another one of those, though Franzen was hardly alone in Detroit's disappointing disappearing act. Others certainly did less. It's just that Franzen's the most capable of much more.
And in the "fundamentals of hockey" department, MLive's Brendan Savage points out that the Wings simply cannot afford to surrender any more third-period leads, tied scores or even one-goal deficits, because the Wings were at least still within striking distance of Chicago until it exploded for three third-period goals:
In the first 40 minutes of eight playoff games this year, the Red Wings have outscored the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks by 15-12. But the third period has been an entirely different story. In the third, the Red Wings have been outscored 15-5 in eight games.
That surprised at least one of the Red Wings.
"I didn't know that," said veteran defenseman Jonathan Ericsson. "But I know we've let in a lot of goals in the third period. (Goaltender Jimmy Howard) can't stand on his head for the whole game and he saved us in the second period (Wednesday), and it kind of comes natural that pucks will going in the third if we're not playing better. Howie saved us in the second period and in the third period we were giving up too many chances again, and they were coming with breakaways and stuff like that. We’ve got to clean that up. It’s frustrating, but it’s only the first game.”
In Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal series with the Blackhawks, Howard turned aside all 17 shots he face to keep the scored tied 1-1 heading to the third period. But the Blackhawks peppered Howard with another 18 shots in the third, scoring three times en route to a 4-1 victory.
Howard clearly got no support but when asked what the problem was, he wasn't about to bite. Instead, Howard referred all questions about the third-period woes to coach Mike Babcock.
"Something to ask Babs," Howard said before heading back to the players-only portion of the dressing room. "That's something for you guys to ask Babs."
The Red Wings have allowed at least two goals in the third period of five playoff games and Game 1 against Chicago marked the third time they've allowed three third-period goals.
Howard obviously needs to step up and make one more clutch save per game, too, but this young, inconsistent and error-prone Wings team was able to win one playoff round by marginally ratcheting up its play from the slightly sloppy but "good enough" hockey necessary to sweep its final four regular season games...
And it's not going to be able to prove the hockey world wrong in predicting the Hawks in 2 or 3 games instead of giving the Wings any remote possibility of an upset unless this Red Wings team plays more efficient, intelligent, fundamentally sound and consistent hockey while receiving more meaningful contributions from its secondary scorers up front and on defense. Howard, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, the Andersson line and Kronwall and Ericsson can only do so much on their own, and when they fall short of the mark performance-wise, they need their teammates to help lift them up, not serve as individual and collective Achilles heels.
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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.