Total Team Effort Sees Red Wings Through to Game 7

For the first time in two years, the Detroit Red Wings took the hockey game to the San Jose Sharks.  They did it not just for a period, a la Game 5, but for an entire 60 minute game.
If Tuesday night’s Game 6 was the first Red Wings game a person coming out of a three-year coma had watched, that person would have no idea that the Red Wings had finally met their match in the San Jose Sharks.  That person would be ignorant of the fact that Detroit could no longer possess the puck whenever they wanted, or that the Red Wings were backstopped by a goaltender that until two weeks ago was pegged as overrated and not good enough to provide an aging Red Wings squad with a realistic hope of a final Stanley Cup before the old guys move on.  That person would also have no idea how the team in red had fallen behind three games to zero at the hands of the team in white.
But all of these things that the comatose patient had missed were the reality even coming into Game 6.  Then, like the aging fighter that nobody’s sure can move or punch like he used to, the Red Wings opened up an exhibition of total hockey on its recent nemesis.  Detroit kept talking about increasing its puck possession throughout the series, but it seemed like they were failing to see the obvious — that they couldn’t out possess the Sharks because they didn’t have the personnel anymore.  Or rather, that they couldn’t because the Sharks’ personnel had grown and developed into a team that was just better at it than Detroit was.  Now, that truth will be questioned heading into Thursday’s Game 7 in San Jose.
In order to pull off the comprehensive outclassing of a very good team, Detroit needed great games from more than just its core of star players.  The Red Wings needed every dressed player to perform at his highest level, and that’s pretty close to what they got.  Every player showed an attention to detail and intensity, which is the only combination that can yield a 45-25 outshooting of the San Jose Sharks.  Other than Dan Cleary having a tough time getting the puck to settle down on the sweet spot of his stick, all of Detroit’s top 9 forwards threatened Sharks goalie Antti Niemi.
Two things stood out to me in this game.  First, Detroit did a great job rationing defensive minutes knowing that they would have to win another game 48 hours later if they wanted to continue to try to win the Stanley Cup.

Defenseman
Ice Time
Nicklas Lidstrom
21:29
Brian Rafalski
21:01
Niklas Kronwall
20:12
Brad Stuart
19:33
Ruslan Salei
18:32
Jonathan Ericsson
18:18
The temptation was there to let Lidstrom play 25 minutes, and let Rafalski and Kronwall skate around 23, and basically just try to survive the few times when Salei and Ericsson had to spell the top four.  But that wasn’t the plan, and it seemed clear that something had gotten through to at least Ericsson, as he looked like a shell of his former irresponsible, unprepared, heart-attack inducing self.  Salei also stepped up and made smart, safe passes that developed the puck possession game that Detroit was so clearly committed to playing Tuesday night.  Kronwall and Stuart laid some lumber, as usual, and Kronwall even moved up to fire the shot that was tipped in by Henrik Zetterberg to tie the game at 1.  The worry in coming back from a 0-3 series deficit is usually that too much energy will be expended in getting to a Game 7, but the superb play of Detroit’s bottom four defensemen should help to alleviate that worry, as Lidstrom and Rafalski were able to play beneath typical ice time numbers for top line defensemen in must win games.
The second thing that stood out to me was how everybody, not just stars or role players, got involved in a positive way.  Prior to the game, I wrote that it was time for Henrik Zetterberg to take over a game the way Lidstrom and Datsyuk had in the two prior games.  And Zetterberg did answer the bell.  He got one of the two best chances to open Detroit’s scoring when Datsyuk fed him a short pass in the left slot with Niemi sprawling across the crease.  Zetterberg was unlucky to have his goal-seeking shot slam right into the shaft of Sharks D man Jason Demers.  But Hank played a game reminiscent of earlier in the season, when he was being talked about as an MVP candidate for carrying the Red Wings through Datsyuk’s injuries.  And with under ten minutes left in the game and the Red Wings trailing 1-0, Zetterberg tipped in a rising laser from the stick of Kronwall to tie the score.
The play was set up by the creativity and pass of Valtteri Filppula, who I blasted a few days ago when I said that he plays like he doesn’t understand that he isn’t Pavel Datsyuk.  Well, it’s a good thing Filppula didn’t stop believing, because he played a complete hockey game and actually looked like a legitimate junior varsity version of Datsyuk.  And it all finally paid off for Filppula when the man he seems to emulate found him with a cross-ice backhand saucer pass that Filppula buried for a 2-1 lead less than two minutes after setting up the tying goal.
The list didn’t stop after Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Howard, the defensemen, or even after Filppula though.  Every Red Wing made an impact.  Todd Bertuzzi played another spirited game in which he carried that ultra-annoyed, scornful scowl on his face that has been there since Devin Setoguchi swept Bertuzzi’s leg out from under him in Game 4.  It’s funny, when Chicago won three games in a row to force a Game 7 with Vancouver in the last round, everybody was talking about what a mistake it was for Raffi Torres to put a cheap shot on Brent Seabrook.  But nobody seems to recall Setoguchi lighting a fire under Bertuzzi that seems to have united this Red Wings team and reminded them how much they don’t want to lose to a bunch of guys that consistently play the leg sweeping, butt ending, sucker punching game.  And yes, I used the term “sucker punching” in reference to an opponent of Todd Bertuzzi — get over it.  If you’re not living in the past, you realize this analysis is spot on in 2011.  But really I have nothing to worry about, since Sharks fans don’t read about hockey.
The list didn’t stop after Bertuzzi’s name either though.  Jiri Hudler, who I also dug at Tuesday afternoon, skated brilliantly and chipped in with some offensive threat without ever giving up a terrible turnover or forgetting to mark a man defensively.  The Michigan State Spartans, Abdelkader and Miller, chipped in with some fourth line minutes, and Mike Modano played a solid game in place of the injured Johan Franzen.
Lastly, Darren Helm played another gem of an NHL playoff game.  There was a moment in the first period when I realized that this might be a different kind of Sharks / Red Wings game.  Helm was chasing a loose puck in the corner of his offensive zone, and knew he would be checked into the boards.  Helm stuck his fists out as he was being bodychecked, and essentially held an extended standing bench press pose for a second, took the puck and passed it out without any other part of his body ever touching board or glass.  It was a move that only the Incredible Hulk could have made, and yet it wasn’t so much as noticed by the television announcers.  Well, you were noticed by me, Darren.
Helm added the empty net goal with just over a minute remaining to ice the game and send the Red Wings faithful into one more rendition of “Don’t Stop Believing,” which you can relive here.
Game 7 is Thursday at 9:07 p.m. in San Jose.  U.S. television coverage is on Versus.
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