I’ve tried to put it off, but now it’s time to take a stand on the series that is nearest and dearest to my heart. The Red Wings won 4-3 Sunday afternoon at the United Center, and in doing so, set up a first round rematch with the Phoenix Coyotes. Hockey fans remember last year’s classic seven game series that lacked very many classic games. In fact, only Game 1 was decided by one goal, and only Game 3 was decided by 2 goals. There were four games that saw a winning margin of three goals, and of course Game 7 that saw the Red Wings win 6-1 in the desert and move onto the western semis. So while we have a tendency to romanticize a series that goes the distance, last year’s really wasn’t that riveting in terms of third period tension and consequence. Neither team got to test themselves in more than one nail-biter, and perhaps it showed in the following round when Detroit dropped all four of its losses to San Jose by one goal apiece. So what can we expect to see this time around from these two teams.
For one, we might be able to expect a lot of goals again. Phoenix came in at only 6th among these western playoff teams in goals scored, but that might be offset by Detroit’s conference worst 241 goals allowed (worst among playoff teams — no sense in evaluating teams already eliminated). Additionally, Phoenix has gotten some of its key offensive players back from injury; players like Martin Hanzal, Lauri Korpikoski, and Vernon Fiddler — all of them centers. Another player the Coyotes will be “getting back” is team captain Shane Doan. No, Doan isn’t coming off injury, but remember that Doan was injured early in that Detroit series last year, and was unable to return. Many pundits pointed out that had Doan not suffered the injury, Phoenix likely would have been the team moving on last year. At the other end, Detroit was one goal shy of the NHL lead, while Phoenix’s defense was just like its offense, 6th of 8.
The Detroit yin to this healthy yang for Phoenix has to be the recent injury to Wings center / left wing / Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg. Hank has been officially ruled out of Game 1 Wednesday night, but I have to think this leg injury could keep him out longer than just one game in this series. Obviously not having Zetterberg in the lineup hurts Detroit on both sides of the rink, but what’s worse is not having Zetterberg for these home games that the Wings are “supposed” to win. Detroit has always shown an ability to win road games and certainly coach Mike Babcock sets the tone for taking things one game at a time, but one has to wonder if these aging and defensively poor Red Wings can rely on coming back in a series against a team as physical and playoff-starved as the Coyotes.
Most people’s default solution to the Zetterberg injury is that Pavel Datsyuk must step his game up to compensate for Hank’s absence, in a role reversal of sorts from the two injury stints for Datsyuk during this regular season. But I don’t think that’s really the key. Datsyuk is brilliant nearly all the time, so there’s really not a whole lot of room for improvement to his game. What’s more important is that the other forwards on the team must play more disciplined and not turn the puck over. Additionally, defensemen like Jonathan Ericsson have to take the training wheels off and start playing up to potential. Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski cannot play 40 minutes a game, so it’s the lesser lines that need to stand up and be accountable for their results. Outside of Brad Stuart and the aforementioned Lidstrom and Rafalski, I’m not sure the Red Wings have any healthy defensemen that would incite confidence in anyone other than their opponents. This is something that has to change, not only in Zetterberg’s absence, but also after his return if this team is to go any deeper than five games into the second round against San Jose. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
I think this series will hinge upon the results of Games 3 and 4. I want to foresee the Red Wings holding serve at home to open the series, but I simply don’t. I think there is some danger that the Coyotes may snatch both games at The Joe, a la Vancouver in 2002. But like any sane person sitting on the fence, I’ll assume a 1-1 series by default. Therefore it will be on Detroit to impose its will and clean up its game when the series shifts to the desert and the Jobing.com Arena is in full white out mode. If Detroit is able to win one of those two games, I think we are looking at a seven game series, and one in which I will take the Red Wings to pull it out again. But if Phoenix is able to make its return trip to the Motor City with a series lead, I don’t think this Red Wings team is good enough defensively to come back and win three games in a row. On the same hand, I love the physicality of this Phoenix team, as well as its rock solid starter in net, Russian olympian and playoff stud Ilya Bryzgalov.
So to review, if it’s 3-1 then I’ll take Phoenix in six. If it’s 2-2 I’ll take Detroit in seven. As I am a Red Wings fan, you can adjust for bias as you will. Puck drops in 26 hours, cheers.