Philadelphia, PA – Just because the Detroit Red Wings were the beneficiaries of a controversial no-goal call late in Game 3, it doesn't mean the seventh-seeded club isn't making its own breaks.
When they drew the mighty Chicago Blackhawks in the second round, the Red Wings were given little hope of winning the Western Conference semifinal matchup. After all, the Blackhawks have been pegged as the favorites out West for months, but as recently as a few weeks ago, Detroit was happy just to be included in the playoffs.
Despite all the hype surrounding the top-seeded Blackhawks, the upstart Red Wings are the ones holding a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
While it's still a big hill to climb to win two more games for the series upset, the Red Wings already have blown past the lowly expectations set out for them when this postseason began. Detroit was a trendy pick to beat second- seeded Anaheim in the conference quarterfinals, but pulling off an upset against the Presidents' Trophy winners in Round 2 would be nothing short of shocking.
This is Detroit's 22nd straight trip to the postseason, but it wasn't expected to be a memorable playoff run, especially considering how high the bar has been set in the Motor City over the last two decades. During the current playoff streak, the Red Wings have appeared in six Stanley Cup Finals and won four championships. The franchise's last title came as recently as 2008, but over the past few years Detroit seemed closer to a rebuilding phase than another deep playoff run.
The Red Wings appeared to be in a slow decline since losing to Pittsburgh in the 2009 playoffs. The club fell in the second round in both 2010 and '11 before getting bounced out by Nashville in the first round of last spring's postseason. This year, Detroit barely qualified for the playoffs with the seventh seed, the club's lowest standing in the conference since it last missed the postseason after the 1989-90 campaign.
It seemed like the end of an era when longtime captain and star defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom announced his retirement after last season's disappointing playoff run. Although the news came a month after Lidstrom's 42nd birthday, the loss of the seven-time Norris Trophy winner figured to loom large on this season. While Niklas Kronwall has done an admirable job of replacing Lidstrom as the big-minute guy on Detroit's blue line, the real difference maker for the Red Wings this season is their ever-improving goaltender Jimmy Howard.
Drafted by Detroit in the second round of the 2003 draft, Howard didn't become the Red Wings' starting goaltender until the 2009-10 campaign, but presently the long development process appears to be paying major dividends for the 29- year-old.
Howard has faced more rubber than any other goaltender during this postseason and is leading the league with 300 saves on 325 shots (.923 save percentage). It's a tremendous turnaround from last year's playoffs when Howard posted a poor .888 save percentage in five games against the Predators.
Although his team has had trouble getting the puck out of its own zone against the Blackhawks in this series, Howard has been able to bail out his club with timely saves. He started slowly in the series, allowing three goals on 41 shots in a 4-1 loss in Game 1, but Howard has since turned aside 58-of-60 shots to lead Detroit to wins in the next two meetings.
His 39-save effort was key in getting the Red Wings their first lead of this series on Monday, but Detroit also had some help from the officials.
Trailing 2-0 after 40 minutes of play, Chicago cut the deficit to one on Patrick Kane's goal less than five minutes into the third period. While officials may have missed a potential boarding call that would have negated Kane's goal, the bigger blunder came about a minute later when Chicago had a game-tying score waved off due to a phantom goaltender interference penalty.
Chicago's Viktor Stalberg fired a shot on net from the right side that found its way into the net, but Andrew Shaw was ruled to have interfered with Howard. The only problem was several replay angles failed to show Shaw ever making contact with Howard.
Sure enough, the Red Wings took advantage of the fortunate decision and grabbed a 3-1 edge when Pavel Datsyuk scored on a terrific rising wrist shot that sailed over Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford and into the net.
"Our hard work has been paying off," Howard said after the game. "Guys have been taking the body and blocking shots. We're playing with a lot of heart right now and we have to keep it going."
The Blackhawks have a right to be frustrated after having such a big goal waved off, but Chicago can't afford to wallow in self pity. With two full days off in between Games 3 and 4 in Detroit, the Blackhawks need to find a way to put the events of Monday night in the past. That means acknowledging they've been outplayed in this series and are not down 2-1 because of bad officiating.
Chicago also needs better efforts from Crawford and captain Jonathan Toews if it wants to stay alive in the playoffs. After giving up seven goals on 60 shots over the last two games, Crawford has to find a way to match Howard's performance at the other end of the ice.
Toews, the Conn Smythe winner when Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010, has yet to score a goal in eight postseason games. He did register seven shots on goal in Game 3 for his highest shot total of the playoffs. That could be a sign he's ready to bust out of the goal-scoring slump and Chicago could certainly use the production after solving Howard for just two goals over the last two games.
Detroit's play early in this series is a testament to the unpredictability of the NHL playoffs. The Blackhawks seemed so far above the Red Wings heading into the postseason, but Chicago is learning how little being a heavy favorite means this time of the year.
Over the last two games, Chicago appeared to be the team waiting for an opportunity while the Red Wings are the ones making their own breaks. If that trend continues, we could have the first major upset of this postseason, one that few people saw coming.