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HEETER'S BLOG: COMEBACK WINGS LOOKING TO FINISH OFF SHARKS

Monday, 05.07.2007 / 5:04 PM / Blogs
By Bob Heethuis
The resurgent Detroit Red Wings will look to punch the last ticket for this year’s Stanley Cup playoff “Final Four” on Monday night as they try to close out the suddenly reeling San Jose Sharks at The Shark Tank.  This would have seemed unlikely just four days ago, when San Jose, already leading two-games-to-one in the series, took a 2-1 advantage into the final minute of last Thursday’s Game 4 on home ice.  The Sharks were poised to put a tight stranglehold on the series, when all of a sudden, disaster struck!  Detroit’s Robert Lang slipped the tying goal past Sharks’ netminder Evgeni Nabokov with just 33.3 seconds remaining, before Mathieu Schneider won it for the Red Wings with a power play goal late in the first overtime.

With the series tied 2-2 and the momentum clearly tilted in its favor, Detroit returned home for Game 5 on Saturday and produced a lopsided 4-1 win, wiping out an early 1-0 deficit, as stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg took control with a goal and two assists apiece in the final two periods.  Leading three-games-to-two, the Wings now stand just one victory away from returning to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2002, which, of course, was the last time they captured the Stanley Cup.

So how, while staring into the gaping, razor tooth jaws of the large and talented Sharks earlier in this series, have the Red Wings avoided that lethal bite and engineered a stunning reversal which now has San Jose with one shoulder on the mat?  I think certainly one of the big reasons is the healthy return of forward Tomas Holmstrom to the lineup.  A 30-goal scorer in the regular season, the gritty Holmstrom is also the league’s best at getting under the skin of opposing goaltenders by creating havoc in front of the net.  He was forced to sit out of the series’ first three games after getting clipped on the eyelid by an errant high stick from Calgary’s Craig Conroy in Round One, and Detroit dearly missed him. Returning for Game 4, Holmstrom delivered a team-high four hits, while scoring a key power play goal with just :05 remaining in the second period to get Detroit back in the game after trailing 2-0.  Holmstrom sparked the Red Wings again in Saturday’s 4-1, Game 5 win, producing 1 goal and 1 assist, while screening Evgeni Nabokov on Mikael Samuelsson’s pivotal early third period power play goal which put the Wings up 3-1. Holmstrom is a unique player whose contributions are invaluable.  Detroit is a much different team when he is in, or out, of the lineup.

I think goaltender Dominik Hasek has been huge for Detroit in this series as well. Sure, he’s let in a few soft goals, and because the Red Wings’ puck possession style usually leads to them out-shooting the opposition, he doesn’t have big save numbers.  But in Detroit’s three wins, Hasek has made huge saves at key times when there is no margin for error.  In each of those games the Red Wings have trailed early, only to see Hasek slam the door on San Jose, giving his talented teammates the opportunity to rally to victory.  When Hasek is healthy and in the right frame of mind, his determination and competitiveness are perhaps unmatched.  Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, the Sharks Nabokov has played very well overall in the series, but he has endured a couple of hiccups at key times.  Lang’s critical tying goal in Game 4 looked a bit suspect, and Pavel Datsyuk’s great steal of a Nabokov clearing pass and subsequent goal, turned the tide in Detroit’s favor in Game 5.

In addition, Special teams play is an area in which Detroit has vastly improved upon as this series has moved along.  After going 1-10 on the power play in the series‘ first three games, the Red Wings went a combined 4-11 (36.4%) in winning Game’s Four and Five. The aforementioned Holmstrom has been a big factor in Detroit’s power play resurgence, scoring twice, while being on the ice for all four!  Meanwhile, the Red Wing penalty killers have held San Jose’s top ranked power play unit to just 2 goal in 23 chances in the series, including a combined 0-11 in Game’s Four and Five.

Perhaps the most impressive ingredients Detroit has shown in turning around this series are patience, composure and confidence.  The Red Wings have trailed early in four of the five games (including three times by multiple goal margins), and it seems incredible that they’ve been able to rally to win three of those four contests against a team the caliber of San Jose.  The Wings never seem to panic, however, and just patiently continue to stick with their game plan until they’re able to make big plays to turn the contest in their favor.

So, after spending this entire blog telling you how Detroit has taken control of this series, do I believe the Red Wings are a lock to win it? Not exactly.  The Wings certainly possess all of the momentum, as well as their first lead in the series, but it would be rather naïve to think that San Jose has packed it in.  The Sharks are such a talented, big and deep team that they certainly have the capability to create a comeback of their own in this series. A Game 6 victory on home ice at the raucous Shark Tank would send things back to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena for a decisive Game 7, where the Sharks have already won once and enjoyed leads in all three previous contests. Meanwhile, Mathieu Schneider’s broken wrist has created a gaping hole in the Red Wings’ defensive corps. For the Sharks to come back to win this series though, without question they have to get optimum production out of their three best players--Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Evgeni Nabokov.  Thornton was dominating in the first three games of this series, but Detroit found a way to effectively control him in Game’s Four and Five, while Marleau has been held pointless after leading the Sharks with 3 goals and 3 assists in their opening round win over Nashville. Nabokov, meanwhile, has been very good in this series, but he must find a way to be better than Dominik Hasek for an entire two games.

This series was projected to be one of the second round's most exciting and hotly contested, with most of the so called “hockey experts” picking San Jose to win. As the two teams have battled back-and-forth, Detroit is now on the verge of proving its doubters wrong.  Can the Red Wings close out the Sharks, or does San Jose have a comeback left of its own.  We’ll soon find out.  As always, enjoy the action!  I know I will!

Heeter
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