ANAHEIM, Calif. When your liabilities become your assets, you finally can start smiling. Here, at last, was Valtteri Filppula – who in the first six games of this playoff series had dropped in fan opinion like an anchor with an anchor tied to it – and a wobbly puck was coming his way.
Filppula, remember, nearly lost this series with a blind, foolish pass in Game 6 that gave the Ducks a goal and new life. He hadn’t scored since the regular season. Time to cringe, right? But the puck came toward him, he backhanded it instinctively, and it hit a stick and went past Jonas Hiller and into the net. And just like that, Detroit led, 3-1, and was in firm control of Game 7 – in a series that had been about everything BUT firm control.
Still the Wings. Detroit is moving on in these playoffs despite being a No.7 seed, despite being as young as a nest of chicks, despite looking very little like Detroit teams of the past, because this is still a roster with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk and Jimmy Howard and this is still a franchise with a sense of the moment. Tough teams play when it’s the toughest, and the Red Wings saved their most complete effort for last, saved their biggest stars for the biggest need, and flew 2,000 miles to capture a series that had seen four overtimes and no back-to-back victories – until Sunday night.
“I think we showed a lot of character down the stretch,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said after a 3-2 victory. “It’s all about finding a way.”
Still the Wings.
A perfect way to start
Seven games? Four one-goal victories? Tip the first hat to Mike Babcock. The coach made a surprising move Sunday night, breaking up his Superman/Batman lineup of Zetterberg and Datsyuk and putting Hank with Filppula and Daniel Cleary and moving Johan Franzen up to join Datsyuk and Justin Abdelkader. And this coming off a victory!
The switch paid off fast. In fact, the game began exactly how Detroit wanted. Lots of shots (Detroit’s philosophy: “When it doubt, flick it at Hiller”) with the Anaheim goalie giving up juicy rebounds, pucks that sat on the ice like flies tempting a frog.
Less than 2 minutes in, Zetterberg skated right into one of those rebounds, flicked it easily past Hiller, and Detroit led, 1-0.
“Was it risky to make a line switch in Game 7?” Zetterberg was later asked. “Well,” he said, smiling, “if we would have been on the other side and lost, we wouldn’t have looked that smart.”
With less than 4 minutes left in the period, with the Wings shorthanded, Abdelkader stole a pass at center ice and streaked ahead of two Ducks to put the puck between the legs of Hill.
“Just trying to get him moving a little bit,” Abdelkader told Fox Sports Detroit in the break. “The five hole opened up…”
He buried it.
Abdelkader was another liability turned asset. He missed Games 4 and 5 due to his hit on Toni Lydman. But he made a big difference once he returned, disturbing the crease in Game 6 and netting that go-ahead solo goal Sunday night.
Detroit went to locker room better on the scoreboard – if not always on the ice. In a Game 7, that’s all that matters.
Still the Wings.
A scary way to finish
The rest of the game – until the final 3 minutes – was nowhere near as eventful as its opening period. Filppula’s goal, 13:45 into the second period, took the air out of the Honda Center. Yes, the Ducks had come back from deeper holes in the series. But there was little sense of that happening Sunday. Maybe the four cross-country trips had taken their toll. Maybe Hiller being less than stellar affected Anaheim’s confidence.
More likely it was the Wings who, behind Zetterberg’s superstar leadership (he finished the series with eight points) and Howard’s unflappable goaltending, rose to their history and grew more brash as the night wore on.
True, Anaheim saw momentary life when, on a late power play, it got a goal off the skate of Jonathan Ericcson that eased past an unsuspecting Howard. But let’s face it – that counted for Anaheim, but it was Detroit that scored the point. You can’t count on THAT happening twice.
A few relieved minutes later, the horn sounded, the Wings skated into a massive group hug, and the first seven-game series of these 2013 playoffs was over.
And Detroit finally had won a game that was NOT in overtime.
Still the Wings.
Survive and advance
“This team has got no quit in it,” said Howard, who stopped 31 shots. “It says a lot about the team – how we had to win two games in row.”
It is not a shock that Detroit did that, or that a No.7 seed upset a No.2. (The No.7 seed has won 44% of the time since the NHL went to this format.) But given how the Wings looked at times this season – and at times during this series – you have to count this as a big accomplishment.
“As the series went on, we felt we were getting better,” Babcock said. “The longer it went, we felt advantage us.”
That’s not hyperbole. Babcock has a ton of younger players, and the more playoff experience he can give them the better the Wings will be. The results may be an erratic series, fraught with mistakes and pull-your-hair-out moments, but when you have Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Howard, you may be able to ride that out.
“We learn as we go on here,” Zetterberg said. “There’s a lot guys who haven’t been in this situations before – but there’s a lot of guys who have.”
The next round, against Chicago, starting Wednesday, should test that balance. The Blackhawks are the darlings of the 2013 season. They are rested, they are deep, they are experienced, and they are really good.
But these are still the Wings. Criticize them all you want; count them out at your own risk.