Thursday, April 24, 2014

When the Air Left the Building

If #8 Justin Abdelkader had finished here--a breakaway in overtime--we wouldn't even be talking about any of this right now...

Less than 10 minutes before the dropped the puck to start Game 4 here tonight in Detroit, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock and I were doing the exact same thing: filling in an incorrect lineup card, one with the wrong number circled next to the name of the starting goaltender.  I had already circled Jimmy Howard's #35 (in pen, of course) when the press box PA man stunned us all by saying, "...And starting in goal, #50 Jonas Gustavsson."

Like a slapshot through a screen, I never saw that one coming.  My immediate reaction was that Babcock was desperate--using a late change in starting goalie to shock his team out the stupor which was the most noticeable aspect of their game here in the 3-0 loss to the Bruins two nights ago.

He wasn't.  After warmup, Babcock was informed by his medical staff that Howard couldn't go.  He was out with the flu. Babcock has already filled out his lineup and the referee had to tell him that he had the wrong goalie listed.  It had to be changed.  So did mine.  As such, because of that late-breaking case of the flu, the Red Wings had to play their most important game of the year without the player who is, by definition their most important player.  (Your goalie is always your most important player is this game, especially in the playoffs).

It turned out not to matter.  It's hard to imagine Howard playing any better than did Gustavsson tonight, which means the result would have been the same no matter who was in net.  The Wings lost Game 4 here to the Boston Bruins 3-2 in overtime and they now trail the Bruins 3 games to 1 and the Bruins can dispatch Detroit Saturday afternoon, end this thing at the TD Bank Garden, or whatever it is that the Bruins home rink is named.

I never cheer; not ever.  Not for the most exciting, dramtic goal or for anything else.  I never say "we" or "us" when referencing a team; any team.  It's the way I was brought up.  Professionally, that is.  You don't cheer in the Press Box.  You don't show favoritism in the Press Box.

But, perhaps due to my upbringing here in the Detroit, perhaps due to how important a part of my life the Detroit Red Wings have been for almost as far back as I can remember (I didn't discover them or the NHL or, for that matter, the game of hockey until I was ten so I have some memories which predate this team and this game) I still get nervous before playoff games.  I hate them, generally.  Tonight, maybe for the first time in my life, I wasn't nervous at all at a playoff game.  The reason was simple, really.  Detroit had no chance. Why be nervous when the result is preordained?

I saw with my own eyes what happped in Game 3: men against boys.  An entire team ragdolled, rolled.  They had no chance to win that game.  Thus, they had no chance to win this one, either.

And then came the Red Wings--dominating Boston in the first period tonight they way they had been dominated by the Bruins the night before last out.  Outshot 11-4 and held without a scoring chance in the first period of Game 3, Detroit turned the tables on the Bruins completely in the first period of this one, outshooting the Bruins 15-5 and outchancing them 9-2.  It was Boston on the run from an overwhelming Detroit attack which featured multiple breakaways in the first few minutes and chance after glorious chance until the horn sounded--mercifully enough for Boston--to end the twenty minutes.  The problem was, Detroit had gotten only one puck past Tukka Rask, a power play slapper from just inside the line by Niklas Kronwall, and led by just that single goal at the intermission.  And, yes, that was good news, very good news for a team which had scored only one goal in their previous six periods, but it wasn't enough.

Pavel Datsyuk scored at 4:27 of the second, becoming the first Wings to score multiple goals in the series (not hard to imagine as it was only Detroit's fourth goal of this series) and, I don't know, I started to let myself think the same thing the 20,000 throaty fans sitting around me were letting themselves think: "Maybe they can pull this thing out.  Wouldn't that be something?  The series would be tied 2-2.  The series would be a best two-of-three..."

But, you know.

At 10:14 (a matter of seconds after me and the 20,000 throaty fans sitting around me had thought: "Halfway home!") Boston got a power play slapper from just inside the line by Torey Krug and it was 2-1.  Their first goal was identical to Detroit's.

As this was happening, the Wings influence over events was inexorably waning.  Slowly but noticeably, the dominant became the dominated.  Now it was the Bruins getting the chances.  And, finally, it was the Bruins tying the score early in the third period when the hated Milan Lucic (hit a guy in the stones with your stick one time and they never let you forget...) the player booed by 20,000 throaty fans here every time he stepped on the ice these past two games, scored at 1:15 and the air left the room.  From then on, it just felt like a matter of time until the moment of doom arrived.

The Wings had chances but in your heart you just somehow knew they weren't going in.  Even Abdelkader's OT breakway (see above).  If only, if only, if only...

And then it ended the way it had to end.  Not on a great play but on a fluke.  (It happens that way so often in overtime).  Dougie Hamilton had it along the right wing half-wall and he tossed it towards the net from 30 feet and it hit Boston's Jerome Iginla and it hit Detroit's Danny Dekeyser and it didn't hit Gustavsson but it did hit the back of the net and the air left the room and the game was over.  And with it, one supposes, the series.  Think Detroit can beat this team three in a row?  Maybe, but you'll have to show me.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Most Lopsided 3-0 Hockey Game Ever

After being held to a single goal in both games one and two the Red Wings did even worse here on Tuesday night, not scoring any goals, falling 3-0 to the Boston Bruins, in the process falling two games to one down to the B's in this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.  Game 4 is here on Thursday night.

Detroit's goal production is the worst by any Red Wings team through three games of a playoff series since Detroit was shutout in the first three games of the 1945 Stanley Cup Final by Toronto. The Wings came back to force a Game 7 in that series (the Leafs won it 2-1) and no doubt it felt as hopeless for Detroit that night at Maple Leaf Gardens 69 years ago as it does here at the Joe Louis Arena tonight.  Indeed, it must have felt worse. Detroit trailed that series three games to none and had scored no goals.  Detroit trails this series 2-1 and has scored two goals.

But, for fans of a team which had turned this series into a best-of-5 and which had home-ice advantage thanks to an unlikely win in Game 1 on the road, hope is hard to come by tonight in Detroit.

You know how it always feels like a 2-0 deficit in a soccer game is insurmountable?  This felt like that. Boston totally (TOTALLY) dominated Detroit in the first period, outshooting the Wings 11-4 and holding Detroit without a single scoring chance; zero, zip,not any.  Meanwhile, Wings goalie Jimmy Howard was giving up a softie to Dougie Hamilton--a wrister from the right circle that beat him over his left shoulder at the 9-minute mark that he should have had in his hip pocket (if hockey pants had pockets which they don't)--and a rebound goal by Jordan Caron after Shawn Thornton had done all the work seven minutes later. Boston two, Detroit nothing and it seemed that it may as well have been 12-0 or 20-0, because it appeared there was nothing, nothing at all, that the Wings could do about mounting a comeback.

It was all Boston all the time, all over the ice.  Detroit needed their netminder to be perfect, and he wasn't.

"We gave them two goals, that's the bottom line," said a disappointed Detroit coach Mike Babcock.  "We've had no pushback the last two games.  I was disappointed with tonight. I thought we looked like kids tonight for sure, no question about it."

Speaking of kids, the Wings had seven players in their lineup tonight who were members of the American Hockey League champions one year ago.  What it appears to mean at the moment, and all it appears to mean, is that it is easier to win a Calder Cup than a Stanley Cup.

And right now, it feels like Detroit's Stanley Cup dream for this season is going to end Saturday afternoon in Game 5 of this series in Boston.  

Monday, April 21, 2014

Wings Overachieve in Boston; Come Home Tonight With Home Rink Advantage

You didn't think they were going to sweep them did you?

A #8 might beat a #1 in the Stanley Cup playoff--hardly anybody knows that better than a Detroit Red Wings fan (#8 San Jose over #1 Detroit in 7 in '94 and #8 Edmonton over #1 Detroit in 6 in '06 rankle still, even to this day)--but in the 10  instances (26.3% of the 38 previous #1 v #8 match-ups) in which an 8 has knocked off a 1, never has the underdog pulled off the upset in a 4-game sweep. The closest any team has ever come to that is the Los Angeles Kings which KO'd #1 Vancouver in 5 games in 2012.  Of the all-time upsets, four have gone the seven-game limit, six have gone 6 and the other would be that Kings-Canucks series two years ago.

The best way to look at where things stand right now is that this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal between the Red Wings and the Bruins is that, while tied at a win apiece, it is now a best-of-five series with Detroit holding home-ice advantage over a Boston team which fought hard to earn it in the 82-game regular season, only to lose it on that bit of magic by Pavel Datsyuk with only 3:01 left to go in Game 1, that most memorable 1-0 Detroit win.   So, for Detroit to have taken home ice advantage away from the Bruins even if they didn't look so good in Game 2, well, as Jack Nicholson says in Mars Attacks, "That ain't too bad."

When the Bruins were last here on April 2, (and here's an interesting note: the Bruins haven't won here since March 7, 2011) it was hard not to be impressed. I mean, you could see why they had 110 points or what ever it was they came into that game with. (OK, it was 110.  I looked it up).  Boston was big and strong and fast and they won a ton of battles along the wall.  Like I said, you could see, heck it was obvious, why they were an elite team.  After the first period, I figured they would win and win rather easily. When they took a 2-1 lead early in the third, you thought, "Nice try, fellows." Entering the game that night, Boston was 45-4-5 (.925) in games in which it was tied or ahead after two periods. Who figured the Wings had much of a shot trailing a team with a record like that in the third?  But, as you will recall, that was the night Tomas Tatar scored off a goalmouth scramble to tie it with eleven minutes left and Gustov Nyquist won it by skating past the B's D on a one-on-two to move in on Tukka Rask and light him up high.  Here, just for the record, is the Bruins defenseman Nyquist beat to the outside and embarrassed (undressed) on the play:
#33 Zdeno Chara wasn't smiling the night he met Gustav Nyquist!

By the way and for the record, the guy Chara appears to be preparing to rag-doll above, Brendan Smith, is not a small human: he's 6'2, 200.  Chara, honest to God, is 6'9, 255.  Really.  6'9!  His wingspan, including his stick, has to be something like 30 feet. And you have to wonder how a 6'2 hockey player had to feel in the grasp of that gargantuan.  Our advice: outskate the bastads. Seriously.  Don't let them catch you like this!  Make 'em spend the night chasing you.  Like in that April 2 game here in Detroit.  Like in Game 1 there in Boston.

Also our advice: Have your goalie play better.  We said going in that the Bruins are the better team.  Let's face it.  There's a reason (actually there are several reasons) why Boston finished so far in front of Detroit--24 points for those of you scoring at home--and the biggest of them is that the Bruins are a better hockey team than the Red Wings.  That's how the standings thingy works. However, just because you are the better team doesn't always mean you win, especially in the playoffs in the National League. And the primary cause of this, of the better team losing more often than you would expect would be the case (remember, slightly better than one in four 1 v 8 matchups go to the 8) is that the inferior teams goalie played better than the superior teams goalie. 

That's why Detroit won Game 1.  In Game 2, Detroit's Jimmy Howard probably played about as poorly as he could play and I'm not even sure that's an accurate assessment. It was more a case, it seemed to me, of Howard not getting many breaks around the net and getting an especially poor one on Boston's first goal when Howard wound up putting the puck on a Boston stick when he was caught out of position, the net behind him essentially unguarded. But was that goal really his fault?  You don't want your goalie to have to come all the way out to the hashmarks to play a puck directly in front of his net if there is any way not to, but Detroit--caught a little bit I thought on a change--let exactly that happen. Then you get a bad bounce and Howard's hung out to dry and the puck is in your net and a team, Boston, which was 41-6-2 (.857) when scoring first during the regular season, has scored first against you.  A few minutes later, you're shorthanded and this happens:

See the puck in the back of the net?  #18 Reilly Smith makes it 2-0 Boston with a first period power play goal.

This was the first of three Boston goals Howard got a piece of before the puck crossed the line. Some night, you got a little of it and it stays out.  Some nights they don't.  This was a don't night for Howard and the Red Wings.

It's safe to say that if Boston scores four again, they will win again. So Howard needs to have a night where when he gets some of it, it stays out.  And pretty much, that is luck. So pretty much, it is luck on which this series rides.

When they drop the puck at the Joe Louis Arena for Game 2 it will be the first Boston-Detroit playoff game in Detroit since April 4, 1957 when the Bruins eliminated the regular season champion Wings in 5. This was Game 5, and I don't know why I wasn't alerted to the fact the Bruins and Wings were playing that night at the Olympia.  I would have wanted to be there.  I was something like twenty months old at the time, after all. 

Detroit, down three games to one, scored three: Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay and Metro Prystai got 'em. Gordie Howe had two assists.  Johnny Bucyk, "The Chief", one of the greatest Bruins ever, played--for Detroit.  But on this night, just like Sunday, Boston scored 4 and they won.  They scored those 4 goals off Glenn Hall and they were the last goals Hall ever allowed as a Red Wing.  He had invited his boss, Red Wings GM Jack Adams, to go f--- himself earlier in the season (perhaps earlier in the series, the record is unclear) in response to an Adams intermission tirade in the Wings dressing room.  After the season,  still upset apparently, Adams shipped Hall to Chicago.  He did okay over there.  The Wings missed him. Bucyk was also traded in that offseason, to Boston.  He did okay over there was well.  The Wings missed him, too. We'll tell you those stories some other time as our mind, as always, is filled with hockey.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

One Point To Make...

#81 Phil Kessel of the Toronto Maple Leafs is spent as the game and his teams dream of a Stanley Cup end.

First up today, we bid adieu to the 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs who saw their run of consecutive playoff appearances end at 1 last night when they were eliminated from postseason consideration in a 3-0 loss at Tampa.  Their demise had actually come a little less than half an hour earlier, at least insofar as the Red Wings were concerned, when Detroit completed their 4-2 win at Buffalo--running their season point total to 90 and making it unpossible for the Leafs to catch them.  The Leafs could still have tied Detroit in points by coming back and beating the Lightening last night (they trailed 2-0 mid-way through the third period when the Wings game ended) and by winning their last 2 games while Detroit lost their last 3, but even then they would have finished behind Detroit in Regulation+Overtime Wins, so as soon as the Wings game ended it was "see 'ya next year" Mapleos.

Detroit's victory leaves only two teams with a chance of passing them and knocking them out of the playoffs: Washington and New Jersey.  Detroit would have eliminated Washington last night too, had the Capitols done what was expected of them: to go out and lose in St. Louis to the best team (111 points) in the Western Conference , but somehow (perhaps the goal--#50 by Alex Ovechkin and his two assists to go with?) they didn't, instead besting the Blues 4-1.   So, Washington can still finish with 91 points by winning their 3 remaining games.  Should the Wings lose their remaining 3, all in regulation, they'd finish with 90, and if Columbus, a point back of the Wings, were to pass the Wings too, Detroit would miss the playoffs.  If Detroit and Washington were to each finish with 91 points, then it's good news for the Wings as they own the tie-breaker over Washington: ROW (currently 33-26, Detroit).

As for Jersey, the only way they can knock the Wings out is to win their remaining 3 to finish with 90 points and for the Wings to lose their remaining 3 in regulation. That would leave each team with 90 points and New Jersey would oust Detroit due to more ROW. Again, assuming Columbus were to pass the Wings, it would mean Detroit would miss the playoffs.

The Bottom Line is this: the next point the Wings get--if they indeed do get another point--puts them in the playoffs no matter what anybody else does.  At the same time, the next point Washington and New Jersey fail to get will mean they cannot finish ahead of Detroit and just as soon as that happens, the Wings will be in the playoffs...again.

As an aside, here's the most unlikely playoff scenario of them all:  Detroit loses their remaining 3 games in regulation.  Columbus loses their remaining three in regulation.  Washington and New Jersey each win their remaining 3 games.   Washington finishes as the First Wild Card, New Jersey is the Second Wild Card and Detroit and Columbus miss the playoffs.

This is why it's always fun at this time of year as teams try to get in and others try to stave off elimination.  (Is there any other situation in the English language in which the word "stave" is the appropriate one to use?)

Failing at staving was Toronto, whose collapse this year was a macrocosm of their Game 7 collapse in Boston in the playoffs last spring.  In that game you'll recall, the Leafs led 4-1 with 10:18 left and yakked it up before regulation time was done.  It was the largest lead ever lost so late in a Stanley Cup playoff game. This, the 2014 stretch run to the playoffs, was just like that.  Only 26 days ago, on March 14, Toronto was in second place in the Atlantic Division and looked like a mortal postseason lock.  They had the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, trailing only Boston and Pittsburgh.  And then Toronto went 2-10 (4 points in 12 games!) and 8 ( really, 8!) teams passed them in the standings and all coach Randy Carlyle could say after what turned out to be his teams elimination game last night was, "Numb and shock I guess would be the words to describe this. Extremely disappointed. Shallow. Embarrassed. All those things.”  Which, if you think about it, is pretty much all could say, verbatim really, after the Disaster in Boston just eleven months ago.

So. Toronto is left to re-tool.  The Red Wings are left to pick up that one last point or ope their pursuers fail to get at least one last point in order to play on.  The winning percentage of the teams Detroit closes against (@Pittsburgh tonight, v. Carolina Friday, @St. Louis Sunday) is .622--the toughest remaining schedule in the Conference and the second-toughest in the National League.  Columbus has the easiest remaining schedule of the Wild Card contenders (.521) while Washington's remaining foes have played at a .589 clip and New Jerseys are at .568.

Tonight's game, "Rivalry Night" although I don't really think there's that much of a deep-seated "rivalry" between the Wings and Pens aside from the Cup Final a few years back--can be watched and streamed on the NBC Sports Network.  The puck drops at 8:10 Eastern time.

The last time these two teams met, on March 20, I thought about retiring after the game because I figured I'd finally seen it all.  That was the night the Wings took a 2-0 lead, fell behind 3-2, went ahead 4-3, got tied 4-4 and won in with 0.4 seconds left in overtime.   Well, I didn't quit and so, here we go again.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How Stephen Gionta (of all people) Could Cost The Detroit Red Wings the Playoffs

This goal, this one right here, could be the reason the Red Wings miss the playoffs...

#65 Danny DeKeyser and #8 Justin Abdelkader look like they have position but #11 Stephen Gionta tips a shot past Jimmy Howard at 19:23 of the 3rd to beat Detroit, 4-3

It’s March 4th and the Red Wings are at New Jersey and the game is tied 3-3 until this instant when Stephen Gionta tips a shot past Jimmy Howard to put the Devils ahead.  The goal comes with 36.6 seconds to play and it's the game-winner.  Had Detroit been able to hang on for that final half a minute or so, they would have at least picked up and point and perhaps, in so doing, might have changed the course of franchise history.  Time, as you will see, will tell.

As for Gionta, well, the assist he picked up Saturday night turns out to be the only point he's gotten since.  But his could turn out to be the biggest goal of them all this season.

As you know, the fate of the Wings—whether or not they will make the playoffs for the 23rd year in a row or not—will be decided this week as Detroit closes out the regular season with four games in six days, three on the road and two against Division winners.

It’s possible that the Wings will have to win three of their last four (or at least get two wins and a single point in one of the others) to get in.  Here’s why…

As of now, Monday afternoon, Detroit is hanging on to the first of the two Wild Card slots with 88 points. (Columbus has, for now, the other Wild Card with 87.) 

The Wings Magic Number is 5.  Any combination of points gained by Detroit and not gained by New Jersey totaling five will put the Red Wings in the playoffs.  

But here’s the problem: New Jersey, on the outside looking in with 84 points has, like Detroit (and Columbus for that matter) four games left.  Three of them are against non-playoff teams before they close the regular season at home against Boston—a team which has apparently decided their best course of action is to rest up for the playoffs.  Hence, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Devils could run the table and finish with 92 points. 

Were Detroit to split their remaining four, they too would finish with 92 points, but since the NHL decided that shootout wins, decided as they are in a sort-of “skills competition” should not count as much as wins decided by actual goals scored under actual game conditions, downgraded shootout wins so that while they are still worth two standings points they don’t count quite as much when it comes to breaking ties in the standings, Detroit would, in that scenario, almost certainly finish behind the Devils in the tie-breaker: ROW (Regulation+Overtime Wins).  As of right now, Jersey has two more ROW (34-32) than Detroit and if that holds, the Devils would finish ahead of Detroit. 

Now, it is possible (unlikely but possible) that Jersey could win all four of their remaining games in shootouts.  If that happened and if Detroit finishes with two additional regulation time or OT wins both teams would finish with 92 points and 34 ROW.  In that case, the season series would be the tie-breaker except that in this case it would not and here’s why: According to the NHL, “If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included.”

Detroit played Jersey three times this season so there were not an equal number of home games so the first game at New Jersey, Detroit’s 3-1 win there on December 6, would not count and both teams recorded two points in the remaining games:

March 4-- Det 3 @NJ 4 
March 7-- Det 7 v NJ 4

The key is that game on March 4.  That was the game the Wings were 36 seconds away from sending to OT before Gionta stepped in.  Had they been able to do get the game to overtime, they would have picked up a point and would have won the head-to-head tie-breaker against the Devils three points to two.

So, let’s say that however unlikely, NJ wins their last four in shootouts and Detroit gets two more ROW and that’s it and both teams finish tied in points and ROW.  What then?

It’s Goal Differential.  The team with the better Goal Differential (Goals For/Goals Against) gets in.  And right now, NJ has the edge.  They are (-9) and Detroit is (-11).  And get this.  If Gionta hadn’t scored that goal, both teams would be tied there as well at (-10). 

Stephen Gionta, for the record, has four goals this season.  He’s 454th of 868 NHL players this season in goals.  He is 156th of 251 among NHL Centers in goals.  And the last goal he scored this season?  Naturally, it came on March 4 against Detroit.  Yes, that goal.