After all the bodies, all the traffic, all the smacking sticks and human shot blocking and forechecks and pile-ups and take-downs and gloves to the face, here was the lonely showdown:
One skater and one goalie.
Everyone else watching.
And the night hanging in the balance.
Chicago’s Michael Frolik, on a third-period penalty shot awarded by the referees (a questionable reward, many said), came charging toward Jimmy Howard like every bull that ever charged a matador. He shifted the puck right and left, then went backhand and flicked it high, and it beat Howard and punched the net, and the Joe Louis Arena crowd groaned and someone at the airport started fueling the Red Wings jet for a very short – yet very long – trip to Chicago.
Back to the brink. The Wings won their first playoff series this year in a Game 7 on the road, and they will have to do it again if the season is to continue. Frolik’s goal, which made it 4-2, was the killer on an exhausting Memorial Day night that had you believing all game long that you were watching a team of destiny.
You just weren’t sure which one.
“They’re a good team, let’s get the facts straight,” said Howard, after the Wings missed a second chance to end this second-round series, which is now tied at three games apiece. “They weren’t gonna go away quietly. Now it’s down to one game.”
Just last week Detroit had a choke-hold on Chicago, three games to one, but Howard is right: The Blackhawks did not win more games than any team in the NHL this season for nothing. They showed more poise Monday night, more concentrated effort, more production from their stars and – this is critical – fewer mistakes.
They have returned to where this series began, their own arena with a home-ice advantage. Sixty minutes left in somebody’s season.
“Game 7,” Howard said. “You dream about these growing up as a kid.”
He said the same thing last time.
Back to the brink.
Lapses that baffled
Let’s be honest. You would never have predicted this with 20 minutes to go and the Wings leading, 2-1. But that was the story of Monday’s Game 6. It was like getting punched and kissed, punched and kissed. On a night when the Wings could have finished off the Blackhawks, they fell behind, tied, went ahead, tied, fell behind and finally had to watch that penalty shot close the lid.
They can blame the referees. They can credit the Hawks. But in the end they also have to blame themselves. They had stretches of inspired hockey, but also stretches of needless penalties, bad defense, 12 giveaways (Chicago had three), and some momentarily questionable effort. The first 10 minutes were inexplicably flat, as were the opening minutes of the final period. In a game of this magnitude, there should be no exhaling. None.
“I don’t know why,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said, “but all of a sudden (in the third period) we started making some plays that we normally don’t. We made some mistakes that we normally don’t. “
The Wings got caught out of position on the tying goal, when Michal Handzus had all day to pick his spot against Howard. Less than five minutes later, the Chicago pest named Bryan Bickell got good position in front of Howard and poked the Jonathan Toews pass by him for the lead.
I know it’s not fashionable to criticize Brendan Smith – he’s admittedly young, and whenever one points out his mistakes, coach Mike Babcock jumps to his defense. But Smith was in on both of those plays, out of position on Handzus’ goal, and on the wrong side of Bickell when he scored his.
No, it’s not his fault alone. Yes, young kids make mistakes.
“It’s a learning process,” Kronwall said. “We move on.”
Back to the brink.
File the flight plan
The crushing goal – Frolik’s penalty shot – came with less than 10 minutes to go after Carlo Calaiacovo got called for slashing Frolik as he charged alone to the net, following a Calaiacovo shot that went off Frolik’s body.
“I thought I did a good job recovering,” Calaiacovo said. “I don’t think I (slashed) him in the hands. I though I made a play on his pants.”
Henrik Zetterberg also called it “weak.” Howard gave a terse “no comment.” But the officials called it, Frolik delivered, and we are all returning to Chicago, where just a few days ago, the Wings were brimming with confidence and the Hawks were being doused with criticism.
Now we’ll see who emerges. The fact is, faced with elimination, the Hawks have been getting star play from some stars players – Toews, awful in the first four games, enabled the first goal and had two assists Monday night – and the Wings need to get that type of production from guys like Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. None of them has scored in the last two games, only Datsyuk had a point Monday night, and you can’t keep relying on third- and fourth-line players to do unexpected things.
“Yeah, I think (it’s time for us),” Zetterberg said. “Game 7 is for guys who have been through it before.”
Someone asked him whether the Wings play best when they were behind and worst when they were ahead.
“Too strong words there,” he said.
Pick your own, he was offered.
“I think … when you’re behind, you have to go for the next one. That’s the mind-set we should have when we’re in the lead, too.”
No worries about that now. The season is down to 60 minutes – for both teams. The idea was to send Chicago home Monday night – not to follow them there. But nothing is easy in the playoffs. And perhaps these young Wings need to feel the cold wall against their backs before they actually realize the season is in the balance.
“It’s not like they came in here and squashed us,” Babcock said after the loss. “They got what we gave them tonight…. I love Game 7’s. I am excited about it. We got a chance to push them out of the playoffs.”
They had that chance the last two games. The big difference Wednesday night is that Chicago does, too.
Back to the brink.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.