BOSTON - Between them, the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins have managed over the past decade and change to figure out this business of playoff hockey.
And a post-season meeting between the two Original Six franchises that was 57 years in the making may well be worth the wait if Friday’s opening act was any indication.
A battle to the end went Detroit’s way when Red Wings’ warrior Pavel Datsyuk ripped a wrister from the high slot that beat Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask with just 3:01 remaining in regulation for the only goal of the game.
The 1-0 win was the perfect result for a confident Red Wings squad undaunted by their eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and a team that was determined to prove it on the opening night of their best-of-seven series.
While the Bruins played tentatively for too long, the Wings did just enough to get the important first strike in a series that will likely last a while. Factor in some spectacular play by Jimmy Howard in the Wings net, and the Eastern Conference champs dug themselves into an early hole.
It isn’t for everyone — as we’ve seen with an explosion of goals early this Stanley Cup season — but the bruising, tight-checking style that makes the opponent pay a price every night has served both of these historic franchises rather well in the modern game.
And with Stanley Cup pedigree still remaining on both rosters, don’t expect either side to go away meekly in this juicy first-round pairing.
Sprinkled throughout the Bruins roster are 13 players from their most recent title three Junes ago, plus a handful more from the team that lost to the Chicago Blackhawks last spring.
Even though they were seven slots lower in the seedings, the Wings had reason for optimism given that they won three of four regular-season meetings. One of those wins, a 6-1 thumping back in November, was the Bruins worst loss of the season.
“We are a big believer in the group we have,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said following the game-day skate. “We think we are detail-oriented and we compete.”
That detail was evident throughout Game 1, played before a TD Garden crowd that went from fired-up, to antsy, to agitated. The Bruins, the best regular-season team in the NHL, were the nervous bunch, turning over the puck too often.
While the first seven games of the post-season averaged almost seven goals per game, that’s not the way Bruins coach Claude Julien and Detroit’s Babcock prefer to roll, playoffs are not.
Remember that these two were part of a Team Canada coaching staff that stifled the best of the rest of the world in a dominating gold-medal performance at the Olympics in Sochi. Though the Bruins were the sloppier of the two Friday, it wasn’t as if they were surrendering breakaway opportunities to the Wings.
Instead, Detroit made their headway by winning battles for the puck, a Babcock staple. The Bruins countered with stinginess in the important areas of the ice, negating for the most part the Wings’ edge in puck possession.
While there wasn’t always a lot of room on the ice, the play wasn’t always about clogging up the neutral zone. The Wings preferred style these days is to utilize speed, which given the youthful roster, there is plenty to burn.
The Bruins, meanwhile, came as advertised, which is to say they were determined to set the tone physically and quick to establish a physical presence in front of Howard. There was speed from both teams but not always good scoring chances as a result.
As many a playoff opponent has learned in the recent past, even when you think you are making headway against the Bruins, it isn’t necessarily so. Take the second period, where the Red Wings appeared to dominate at times.
When it was over, though, they had just five shots on net in 20 minutes that included a power-play opportunity. What happened? The Bruins blocked 10 and the Wings fired high or wide on six others.
The Bruins, tentative early, finally got their legs under them in the third period and the excitement kicked up a notch. When Howard made a big toe save on Brad Marchand early, it was matched at the other end by Rask, who was similarly acrobatic in stopping Darren Helm.
The longer it went, the more it felt like one bounce or one bullet was going to decide it. And the Wings landed the first shot.