DETROIT — Last time out, the Chicago Blackhawks showed their youth and inexperience.
We’ll find out tomorrow night whether the Detroit Red Wings will take advantage of their veteran savvy.
The Wings will have their first chance to close out the Western Conference final with Chicago when they hit the ice at Joe Louis Arena.
It’s a chance to show they learned from the last time they were in this exact situation, up by a 3-1 count in a series with Game 5 on home ice.
That would be last year’s Stanley Cup final against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That night, the Wings saw their one-goal lead disappear in the final minute. Then they played nearly 50 minutes of overtime only to lose what finished the fifth-longest final game in Stanley Cup history, and have to return to Pittsburgh for Game 6.
They did close out the series in Pittsburgh, but the Wings don’t want to return to Chicago this year.
“You always want to play the least amount of games as possible,” Wings netminder Chris Osgood said yesterday. “In the playoffs, you want to finish off teams quick. So knowing that, we’ve got to play our best game. I thought we played our best game last game but we need to do the same at home and just play a smart game.”
Sunday afternoon’s 6-1 shellacking of the much younger Blackhawks was a demonstration of just how smartly the Wings can play. Even without top defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom, league MVP candidate Pavel Datsyuk and veteran grinder Kris Draper, the Wings were composed from start to finish.
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks were off-kilter from the start — whether it was from a preoccupation over Niklas Kronwall’s hit on Martin Havlat the game before or not having No. 1 goalie Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes, we’ll never know.
Either way, the Hawks were undisciplined penalty-wise and play-wise and received their biggest butt-kicking of the playoffs.
No team in the league is as well versed as the Red Wings at closing out a series, and now it’s their chance to swat aside yet another challenger.
“You just have to continue to play your game and focus on yourself, understanding all the time that you’ve done nothing till this point,” said Wings head coach Mike Babcock. “I think that’s very, very clear. You’re allowed to enjoy today and that, but it’s gonna be hard. As soon as you let up for one second, and the other team gets more focused, then they beat you. So you just got to stay doing what you’re doing and try to make the adjustments you need to win the next game.”
Certainly the Wings have all the momentum, even with the status of Lidstrom and Datsyuk up in the air.
“I don’t buy any of that stuff, messages and momentum,” Babcock insisted. “I believe (Detroit Tigers manager) Jim Leyland’s (theory regarding) momentum; It’s as good as tomorrow’s starter. I think hockey is the same thing. It’s a new game tomorrow or the next day. I don’t buy into any of that stuff.
“I believe in living in the present and getting prepared for the opportunity we have. You know, we have a good opportunity. I understand that. The guys understand that.
“But if we don’t play good, last game doesn’t mean anything.”
The coming game also marks the first time in these playoffs the Blackhawks have faced elimination.
It’s a good bet the Hawks will be more disciplined after taking nearly an hour’s worth of infractions last outing.
How they handle the adversity of a do-or-die game remains to be seen.
“It’s something we’ve done well all season, bounce back, learn from our mistakes,” said defenceman Cam Barker. “I think (Sunday’s game) kind of got away from us, might have let our emotions kind of get in the way.
“Obviously you can’t be running into the box against a team like that. I think we’ve learned all season and bounced back. I don’t see it being any different.”