The Detroit Red Wings’ backs are up against the wall for the second time in as many weeks. Just a few weeks ago, the Red Wings were on the brink of being eliminated from contention in the NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, and from ending their streak of 21-straight years having qualified for the post-season. They survived and clinched the 7th spot in the Western Conference. This time around, the Red Wings are facing an elimination game in the first round of the playoffs against the Anaheim Ducks, who currently lead this series 3-2. After 5 games of back-and-forth action, the Ducks are sitting one win away from the Western Conference Semi-Finals date with the Chicago Blackhawks (who eliminated the Minnesota Wild with a 4-1 series win this past Thursday night).
With Detroit’s season and playoff lives on the line on Friday night, the keys to their success in game 6 lie within 2 words: Defence and Discipline.
The best teams in the NHL are able to have 3 strong defensive pairings that a coach can throw out against any given line at any given time. With the NHL lacking in premier, elite defence-men, the next best thing for coaches to do is to shuffle defensive pairings, hoping to find a twosome that work well with each other. Mike Babcock has done just that pretty much all season.
The number-one defence pairing for the Detroit Red Wings features Swedish stand-out, Niklas Kronwall, and Swedish country-man Jonathan Ericsson. Kronwall has seemingly taken over the defensive leadership duties left behind by former Red Wings captain, Nicklas Lidstrom. Ericsson has come into his own the past 4 seasons, establishing a strong defensive relationship with Kronwall. He’s not as big a point producer as Kronwall, but is a solid defensive presence and can move the puck like Kronwall. Both defence-man are big guys who are solid on the blue-line, have great defensive and offensive awareness, and are puck movers. Let’s not forget Kronwall’s ability to intimidate wingers coming down on his side with his ability to lay the body. Just ask Duck’s winger Kyle Palmieri…
This is Mike Babcock’s shut down pair. They will play big minutes, especially against the Winnik-Getzlaf-Perry line. After these 2 is where we start to question things. With Brian Lashoff out for tonight’s game, in comes Carlo Colaiacovo (as per NHL.com). Kyle Quincey, Brendan Smith, and Jakub Kindl round out the rest of the starting defence-men. Babcock has struggled to find a pairing within these 4 (along with injured Danny Dekeyser) that provides a strong 2-3 defence pairing. With Anaheim’s fire-power spread throughout their top 3 lines with the likes of Teemu Selanne, Bobby Ryan, Andrew Cogliano, and the suddenly hot Nick Bonino, Babcock will have his hands full finding the next two pairings to shut down the rest of the Anaheim roster.
I’d like to see Smith play with Kindl. Kindl is a great puck-mover, while Smith is a great stay-at-home guy who has really developed this year. Kindl’s turnovers the past few games haven’t been very assuring though. Quincey and Colaiacovo have been all over the map this season, and it’s anybody’s guess as to if they’ll show up tonight.
We know Kronwall and Ericsson will be looked to carry the defensive load for the Red Wings, so long as they’re in the playoffs. But the success of the Detroit Red Wings will be heavily based upon whether Mike Babcock can find some chemistry within his second and third defensive pairings tonight. Tonight is a desparation game for the Red Wings. You know the forwards and Jimmy Howard will show up. But will the defence?
I’ve said this over and over again the past few days. The Red Wings need to avoid the penalty box. Give the fourth best power play in the NHL enough chances with the man-advantage, and they will make you pay.
Detroit hasn’t done a great job of avoiding the penalty box this series. The fourth-least penalized team in the NHL during the season has given the Ducks 21 opportunities with the man advantage. Anaheim has made them pay 6 times. The penalty kill has done a great job of limiting the damage, but with the PK unit getting so much time on the ice, the Ducks have found ways to break them down and tire them out.
Look how easy it was for Ryan Getzlaf to walk into the slot on Wednesday night to score the tying goal…
Detroit may have won this game if the Ducks were not given the chance on the man-advantage.
It’s as simple as this. Staying out of the penalty box limits the Ducks power play time, with which they’ve had much success during the season, and during this series especially.
Jimmy Howard has stood on his head many times during this series, specifically last game. He was broken down, and all it took was one man off for the Red Wings, and Getzlaf sent the game to overtime (where the Ducks eventually won). Nick Bonino, Teemu Selanne, Matt Beleskey, and Saku Koivu have all had their equal share of burning the Wings on the power play. Babcock will have an even tougher time trying to allocate certain defensive responsibilities to so many scoring options for the Ducks.
With a questionable defensive corps, and the Ducks superior power play which is steaming at 28.6% (according to NHL.com), it is so key that Detroit avoids the penalty box tonight. If they do, this series may just head back to Anaheim for Sunday night’s game 7. If they continue to play with fire (that is continue to take mindless penalties), then they may just get burned.
The Anaheim Ducks visit the Joe Louis Arena tonight to face the Detroit Red Wings in game 6. Puck drop is at 8 pm (ET) and can be seen on TSN2 (Canadian viewers) or CNBC (American viewers). Justin Abdelkader will be making his return after a two-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head of Toni Lydman in game 3. He will provide a great spark for the Red Wings’ forwards and should see plenty of ice-time. The forward units have been pretty good, and Howard’s been stellar thus far; you can bet goaltending and scoring will not be an issue in game 6. The Red Wings success tonight lies in defence and discipline. Otherwise, leaving goaltender Jimmy Howard out to dry and making the penalty box your home is a recipe for cleaning out your locker sooner than you hoped for.
I am a fourth year student at the University of Toronto studying Physical Education/Concurrent Teacher Education. I have been a hockey fan all my life and play in a men’s league during the winter. My favourite leagues are the NHL first and foremost, the MLB, and the NFL. I also work at the hockey megastore Pro Hockey Life. Follow me on twitter @rob_ruscitti and check out my sports blog on twitter as well @EhSport360