Monday, June 10
Updated: June 10, 11:49 PM ET
A pinch and a poke: Wings D has made the difference
By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Sure, Detroit's high-wattage offense got it the Presidents' Trophy. But it is the Red Wings' suffocating defense that has them one game away from claiming a much more valuable piece of hardware. It is the "D" that has downgraded the Hurricanes from stiff breeze to stifled wheeze.
The Wings have an uncanny ability to shut down opponents late in a playoff series. In the clincher against St. Louis, Detroit gave up only 16 shots and shut out the Blues 4-0. Down three games to two against Colorado, the Wings shut out the Avalanche 2-0 in the Pepsi Center and then 7-0 in Game 7 -- giving up just 19 shots in the decider. And Monday night in the Entertainment and Sports Arena, Detroit allowed only 17 Hurricanes salvos in a 3-0 whitewashing.
"Our penalty kill has been unbelievable, and the system has been incredible," blueliner Steve Duchesne said. "Everybody is buying into it."
And it's not just how Detroit's rearguard has played in its zone. All three Red Wings goals Monday night began with defensemen pushing the puck. First, Fredrik Olausson hustled the disc up to the Carolina blueline and set up Boyd Devereaux's nifty dish to Brett Hull. Then, Jiri Fischer pinched in on the left point and fed a gorgeous cross-ice pass to the waiting Igor Larionov. And finally, Chris Chelios' pass began the odd-man rush that ended in Brendan Shanahan's goal.
"They move the puck so well from their back end," Carolina coach Paul Maurice said. "It's so overlooked because it's far more fun for everybody to look at the goals that are scored, but their defensive game is outstanding."
Now think back to some of Detroit's momentum-changing goals in this year's playoffs. Against Vancouver, it was Nicklas Lidstrom's center-ice bomb that shocked Dan Cloutier and the streaking Canucks. Fischer scored in the final two games of the St. Louis series. Olausson's overtime game-winner in Colorado gave the Wings a 2-1 series lead. And Lidstrom's power-play slapshot in Game 2 of these finals evened things at one game apiece and set the Wings on their way to what could be four straight wins.
This is not coincidence. Detroit's defense gets more and more bold as a series gets tighter. From the opening faceoff Monday night, Chelios was deep in the 'Canes zone, slamming his stick on the ice and demanding the puck. Lidstrom was looming in the high slot. And even stay-at-home defensemen like Fischer and Olausson snuck in on 'Canes goalie Arturs Irbe just to keep him honest.
How could this happen? Why isn't Carolina taking advantage of all this blatant aggression? Carolina had zero, count 'em, zero odd-man rushes Monday night. The BBC line of Rod Brind'Amour, Bates Battaglia and Erik Cole has been reduced to a mere test pattern. What gives?
It's the old left-wing lock, now known in the Detroit dressing room as "three man high." At least one Red Wing forward either stays on the blueline or rushes to help backcheck. Even hey-I'm-open Brett Hull is pitching in. Sure, Carolina does the same thing. But unlike the 'Canes, the Red Wings can sacrifice a forward on every rush and have plenty of scoring touch left over to pose a threat. What's the BBC line without Brind'Amour or Battaglia? Ancient history.
"If you listen to the reporters, they say we're ruining the game," said 'Canes defenseman Aaron Ward. "But Detroit is turning around doing the same thing to us. And right now, we don't have an answer."
Those same reporters spent the entire season talking about the newest offensive additions to the Wing Dynasty -- Hull and Luc Robitaille. But the difference between this Detroit team and the one that caved in the first round last season against Los Angeles is the defense. Last year, Fischer looked like he was handling a live wire instead of a hockey stick. Last year, Duchesne looked like he needed a compass. Last year, Olausson was playing in Switzerland. And last year, Los Angeles skated circles around Detroit. All the Wings' horses couldn't put a clamp on Adam Deadmarsh and the rest of the oncoming Kings. Sure, Fischer, Olausson and Duchesne have all had major lapses in these playoffs. But the mistakes have all come in Games 1 and 2 -- never in Games 5, 6, or 7.
So Maurice will have two days to figure out some way to penetrate Detroit's five-man defensive system. If they can, the 'Canes will still have Dominik Hasek to contend with.
If they cannot, Hockeytown's denizens will gather on the banks of the Detroit River on Thursday night and watch the Tropical Depressions blow out to sea.
Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.