In a week’s time we will come upon the fifteen year anniversary of the Detroit Red Wings sending the Jets from Winnipeg to Phoenix. Last night, Detroit may have returned the favor for the people of Winnipeg.
It has been widely reported that a move is in the works to bring the Coyotes back to Winnipeg this summer, and the franchise became the first playoff team to have its summer begin. Last night’s 6-3 loss to the Wings in Game 4 solidified the series sweep for Detroit, and in many ways summed up a disturbing effort from the Phoenix team in general. Last season, the Coyotes were the team every outsider joked about, as despite their third best record in the western conference, many were taking them the way the Seattle Seahawks were taken going into this past NFC playoff. As posers, frauds, impostors. Pundits assumed that the seasoned Red Wings, despite being the 5 seed and on the road for the series, would mow through Phoenix as any world-class former champion would brush aside an unknown amateur. But the Coyotes showed their mettle in winning two of their three road games en route to a disappointing loss at home in Game 7. Overall, the result was supposed to be encouraging.
Fast forward to this season and the Coyotes had no reason to think they were substantially worse than last year. They found themselves competing out of the 6 seed, but they were involved in the jumbled mess that was the NHL’s western conference, and in fact finished tied for fourth in the west, but lost out to Anaheim and Nashville based on tiebreakers. So this is a team that was one point from repeating as the 4 seed in the west and getting another crack at a home ice series, which would have been against their division rivals, the Ducks. But instead, the Coyotes drew another matchup with the Red Wings, which based on last year could have been expected to go six or seven games and at least be competitive. But that wasn’t the case. Not at all. Only one of the four games did Phoenix lose by one goal, and that was only after spotting the Wings a 4-0 lead in Game 2 before coming back to make it closer. Then, when they were on the verge of taking the first step last night in a 3-3 game with under 7 minutes to go, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov allowed an unforgivable goal to Dan Cleary which was shot from the corner of the rink and banked in off the Russian’s skate blade and into the net. A goal like that screams of a lack of attention to detail, and who could argue that wasn’t the case after Bryzgalov closed the playoffs by allowing 17 goals in a four-game series to Detroit? I understand that many people think the Red Wings are an elite team, but no goalie should carry an .878 save percentage through an entire series, especially a goalie looking to get paid this offseason.
But Bryzgalov can’t be the only one to blame for this 4.50 GAA that the Coyotes lugged around with in this series. There are so many clichés I don’t know where to start. What about the goalie only being as good as the team in front of him? What about the best defense being a good offense? Let’s examine that one closer. Over the course of the season, Detroit allowed 3.18 goals per game. That number includes all of the games against bad teams too! Phoenix brought a mid-level offensive year into the playoffs, one that saw them finish 8th in goals scored out of 15 western conference teams. By this logic, Phoenix should have pretty much scored the average amount of goals on Detroit in this series. But Phoenix fell short of this achievement by only getting 2.5 per game on Jimmy Howard. If you want to adjust for the prevent defense aspect, or try to find out how many “meaningful” goals were scored, you’ll find that over the first three games of the series Phoenix only scored two goals that either a) gave them the lead, b) tied the game, or c) brought them to within one. The other five goals that Phoenix scored in those first three games only brought them to within two or three goals. I know all goals count the same, but we also know that situations are different, and the scoreboard often times determines how a team will play. All in all, not a good showing by the franchise, and it almost looked as if they knew they were getting out of town soon. I still like Doan and the core of young players like Hanzal, Yandle and co., but this effort was not good enough.
On the flipside, this result couldn’t be better for the Red Wings. Of all the teams that could perennially use some playoff rest, Detroit could almost always use it the most given their reputation as the AARP champions. While I have always thought the age thing was a little overblown concerning the Red Wings, I do think that in today’s NHL, rest is paramount. There was a time when it was debated as to whether it was better to go into a series rested or fresh off a highly competitive victory. But given the fact that the face of the league hasn’t played a hockey game in nearly four months, I don’t think there’s ever a reason to want to have to play more hockey than you have to in order to win. And it’s not just Sidney Crosby. Concussions have become the new black in American sports. Throw on top that the Red Wings are awaiting the return of triple gold club member Henrik Zetterberg, and it makes no sense to argue that the team would be better off risking an injury to another player just to gain some faux sharpness.
I know that Detroit fans are predisposed to hating long waits in between series given the disaster that was the 2006 World Series, which followed what seemed like a month of the NLCS, but knowing what we know about the physical toll of playoff hockey tells us that Detroit could not have put themselves in a better position to prevail in round two than by doing what they did against Phoenix in round one. There is no question that the Red Wings have been preparing for a second round battle with San Jose ever since it became apparent that they would finish 2nd and 3rd in the west, respectively. Detroit went into last year’s second round matchup with the Sharks coming off that hard fought seventh game against Phoenix, and that was only after having to battle late in the year to even make the jump from 9th place late. What resulted was a tired showing by the Red Wings, as they dropped the first three games by one goal apiece, and were eventually downed in five games. Detroit knew it would have to go through San Jose to get where it wants to be, and they also knew that going into the series beat up and “tested” got them nowhere last year. In fact, the Wings may even be lucky enough to see the Sharks be the ones who get beat up a little in a long series with the LA Kings, but that hope may have gone out the window when LA blew a 4-0 lead in Game 3. Not sure if they can mentally come back from that disappointment, and tonight’s game will probably determine whether this is a breeze of a five game series for San Jose, or if this series will become a strong candidate to go the distance. The Red Wings are hoping for the latter.