The defending Stanley Cup champions, the Detroit Red Wings, were pushed to the brink of elimination last night at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks. Ironically, with a team largely built around speed and finesse, it was a role-playing grinder who turned out to be the hero.
Canada’s own Dan Cleary came through, scoring a tiebreaking goal with 3 minutes left that lifted Detroit to a 4-3 win on Thursday night that sent the 11-time champs to the Western Conference finals for the third straight year.
And rather than rolling with the bounces – most of which have gone Anaheim’s way throughout the series – the Ducks did what they do best…whine and complain.
Detroit took a 1-0 lead late in the first when Jiri Hudler re-directed a pass from Johan Franzen, shelfing it over Hiller’s shoulder. The goal was helped in part by a stupid Ryan Getzlaf penalty, one of two key minors he took.
Early in the second, with the momentum on Detroit’s side, the speedy Darren Helm picked off a Teemu Selanne pass and was off to the races, beating Hiller on the low-blocker. Helm, playing in only 7 games this season, was a minus-2, whereas in the playoffs, he’s already recorded 4 goals.
After the Ducks broke the donut, Mikael Samuelsson eventually slid one under Hiller after Valtteri Filppula broke away and kept with the puck. Dastyuk eventually followed, also recording an assist on the play.
Anaheim would add two more, tying the game at 3. Cue the heroics.
With 3 minutes left on the clock, Detroit began pressuring once again. With Henrik Zetterberg behind the net, he shoots in front of the net, where Cleary taps it down. As the puck falls, it lands behind Hiller, who at this point, is unaware of the pucks’ whereabouts. Cleary’s attempt to poke the puck through ended up pushing Hiller’s pad backwards, who incidently knocked the puck into his own net, giving Detroit the series-winner. Talk about a thriller.
The fact that throws most fans is that most teams defending the Cup rarely make it to the final four – and in some instances, don’t even make the playoffs at all.
Before Detroit did it, Colorado was the most recent NHL team to reach the conference finals after hoisting the Cup. The Avalanche lost to Detroit 7-0 in the deciding game in 2002.
Once again, Detroit outshot Anaheim 40-27. Much credit is due to netminder Jonas Hiller, who turned aside 36 shots in the defeat against the NHL’s most potent offense. The Ducks, though, showed a lot of resolve to make Game 7 necessary, and to give Detroit all it could handle.
Detroit, however, deserves all the credit in the world. They killed off two 5-on-3′s against a very good offense, something a regular team is simply not capable of. Ultimately, they killed off 4-of-5 powerplays, thanks in large part to offensive stars such as Zetterberg, Franzen and Rafalski blocking a ton of shots.
The Red Wing offense saw a familiar method last night, as well. Two of Detroit’s four goals (the other two were scramble plays off of turnovers) were scored using cross-ice passes. Take, for example, Henrik Zetterberg going cross-ice to Franzen, then to Hudler for the first goal of the game.
Aside from Detroit’s unmatched skill and preparation, lady luck may also have been on the Red Wings side. It was the 7th game 7 played at Joe Louis Arena, the last one being 7 years ago where they scored 7 goals in a 7-0 win over the Colorado Avalanche. Nonetheless, they have been impressive – returning to the Western Conference Finals in a salary cap era is something to marvel.
From a fan’s standpoint, this series could provide nothing more. It was exciting, intense, competitive, and incredibly entertaining. And not just this series – the Hurricanes and Bruins series was spectacular, and the Penguins and Capitals – er, Crosby versus Ovechkin – was a media dream come true.
This series, at the very least, was intensity city – five games were decided by a goal, including Game 2 in triple overtime. This series had everything – big hits, big goals and big saves.
Detroit will host the Blackhawks in Game 1 on Sunday, matching up the Original Six teams in the playoffs for the first time since the conference finals in 1995.
The Red Wings have advanced to at least the conference finals eight times in the last 14 seasons, winning the Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.