Before taking to the ice to face elimination at home in last night’s Game 4, Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom told his team to play with confidence. Then, he showed them why they should: because they have him on their team.
Lidstrom set the tone early with two goals in the first period to open up a short-lived, but hope-inducing 3-0 lead on San Jose. I say “short-lived” because within 15 seconds of Lidstrom’s second goal, which he kicked to his stick and swatted out of midair from the slot, the Sharks scored a softie through the wickets of Jimmy Howard to make the score 3-1. Dan Boyle scored the only goal of the second on a cheat up play that went unnoticed by Detroit’s Jiri Hudler, who has been particularly dreadful in this series. The lead was officially blown early in the third, when Dany Heatley, the talented goal scorer with a newly acquired playoff toughness, made a goal scorer’s play and hit the top left corner over Howard’s blocker following a beautiful cycle play behind the net.
But Lidstrom only redoubled his efforts, and played an intricate role in killing off two Detroit penalties with the score tied at 3. They were the first power plays for the Sharks in the entire game, and for once the Red Wings’ penalty killing was up to the task. Both teams had their chances throughout the third, but Howard and Niemi raised their games when it became evident that the next goal would probably win. But Niemi did not have the luxury of having the great Lidstrom doing work in front of him, and eventually Detroit cashed in on a typical Red Wings puck movement play that saw Darren Helm take a cross ice pass to the bank. The Joe Louis Arena crowd may have caused some roof damage over the last 1:27 of the game, when Helm scored the eventual winner. During the ensuing San Jose timeout, the building blared the intro to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” and the crowd shouted the words “south Detroit” louder than ever. It was a moment to cherish for any Wings fan, as no matter what ends up happening in Sunday’s Game 5, this moment happened, and nobody can ever take it away. And it was fueled by Lidstrom, who gave his teammates the support and belief in themselves to not quit, as some teams down 3 games to 0 are wont to do. Oh, and also the two goals.
But we’ve seen this before: the 1997 Pittsburgh Penguins had almost an identical setup in their first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins were a 6 seed in the east that year, and figured to be overmatched by the eventual conference champion Flyers, which of course they were. But there was that one moment, in Game 4 with the Penguins facing elimination and the impending retirement of Cup-winning hero Mario Lemieux. The Penguins were five years removed from their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups (1991 and ’92). These Red Wings feel five years removed from the 2009 disappointment in Game 7 of the Finals. But in that game in ’97, with time winding down and the Penguins trying to hold a two goal lead, Mario Lemieux found himself in all alone with speed flying up the left wing. To say that the goal and ensuing celebration was a special moment probably only highlights my lack of vocabulary, but I couldn’t help but feel some déjà vu watching last night’s scene, which reeked of reflection and appreciation, unlike the typical game-winning celebration.
This is the same point that was made by hockey people 14 years ago in the lead up to Pittsburgh’s trip to Philadelphia for Game 5, but there’s no reason these Red Wings cannot go grab a win in San Jose. Detroit has lost all five of its playoff games in San Jose over the last 12 months, but all five losses have been by only one goal. So while San Jose does look like the better team, Detroit at least gave us a reason to hold out hope for this otherwise abominable conference semifinal round. Another key to winning road Game 5s to stay alive is that it shifts the pressure to the leading team. All of a sudden, if the Red Wings are able to force the Sharks to fly back to Detroit for a Game 6, the media will stop talking about how bad the Wings are, and will replace that line with the one about how the Sharks have blown playoff opportunities in the past. We saw this happen just last round with the Vancouver Canucks, who parlayed a missed opportunity to sweep Chicago into a pressure-packed, finger-pointing blamefest in which Vezina candidates were benched and MVPs past and future were likened to the fairer sex. Vancouver escaped, but only after Alex Burrows had to score in overtime of Game 7. As a Wings fan, I’d love nothing more than to put that same pressure on the shoulders of our new bane, the Sharks. Here’s hoping for another spirited Game 5. Because, unlike Lemieux and the 2001 conference finals run, Lidstrom is not walking back through that door.