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Grand Central sports writer Doug Sears Jr. previews the Red Wings' upcoming playoff series.
The Red Wings entered the playoffs in unfamiliar territory. Not Division champions, with no home ice advantage, and having scrambled since the Olympics just to get in the playoffs.
The Phoenix Coyotes entered the playoffs in unfamiliar territory. The difference is, the playoffs themselves stood as the unfamiliar territory for the team that barely evaded bankruptcy before the season started.
The Red Wings stood, confused as to how they sunk to fifth place after winning the division every year of this decade, and most of the last. They turned to see a team that was probably just happy to be there.
Much like last season’s first round matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the experienced Wings licked their chops. Unfortunately, just as they were a year ago, they were punched in the mouth.
The Coyotes, led by captain Shane Doan, came out of their corner swinging. Big hits, a relentless forecheck and stellar goaltending stole the first game for Phoenix, and shocked the Red Wings.
The Wings answered in game two, then were beaten again in game three, all though it came with the consolation of knocking Shane Doan out for the series when he injured his shoulder after tripping over Jimmy Howard.
However, the veteran experience for the Wings carried them to a game four win, led by Jimmy Howard’s first playoff shutout. A convincing victory in game five indicated the Wings had regained control. The Coyotes disagreed, hitting back in game 6 with a dominant 5-2 victory to bring the deciding game back to Phoenix.
The first period was a typical story for the series, Detroit being frustrated by Ilya Bryzgalov, who made 17 saves and let nothing in to start the game. In period two, however, Pavel Datsyuk led the Wings back to their old ways, as they pumped in four goals. Two more goals in the third and the Red Wings sent the upstarts packing, after weathering an unexpected challenge and in the process finding their game.
Waiting on deck are the San Jose Sharks, who weathered a storm of their own from the Colorado Avalanche, taking six games to defeat the last playoff seed in the West. San Jose appears to be plagued by their usual playoff problem, namely the disappearance of stars they depend on to consistently put up great regular season records.
Joe Thornton had only three points in the opening round, as did Patrick Marleau, the Sharks first and second regular season scorers this season. Evgeni Nabokov was very good in the first series, posting a 1.76 goals against average and one shutout.
Keys to the series
1. Joe Thornton: As Jumbo Joe goes, so go the Sharks. Unfortunately for them that has usually meant going home early, as Thornton, much like Kevin Garnett in his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves, usually tries to do too much for his team and manages to do very little.
If he can finally get over the playoff hump, the best passer in hockey will be a dangerous threat to the Red Wings playoff future. If he continues to struggle, and Pavel Datsyuk’s tight defense continues to frustrate Thornton, the Red Wings will be able to make their own destiny.
2. Jimmy Howard: In games four, five and seven, Howard was dominant. In games two, three and six, Howard was pedestrian, getting beaten by simple shots and losing focus. Even in his sparkling game seven performance, the one goal he did allow he later admitted he should have stopped but was not properly prepared for it.
Which Jimmy Howard the Red Wings have will be huge in this series. While it is unfair to call his play inconsistent after only seven games, Howard needs to be on his game at all times. Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley are both capable of exploiting the slightest mistake by a goaltender and lighting the lamp. There can be no loss of focus for the rookie goaltender in this series if the Red Wings expect to move on.
3. Nicklas Lidstrom: Lidstrom has always been a symbol of stability on the blue line for the Red Wings, winning six Norris trophies and a Conn Smythe trophy. However, it may be fair to say that the series against Phoenix was one of his worst.
He was slow on defense, made sloppy passes, and missed the net regularly on his usually laser accurate slap shots from the point. However, all that ended in game seven, where he was in perfect position to break up every play in his own zone, using his stick like a wand to steal passes, close lanes, and take the puck off attackers sticks at just the right moment, just as he has his whole career.
If Lidstrom has re-found his form after a small slump in the last series, it bodes very well for the Red Wings, who still depend heavily on the Defenseman who just celebrated his 40th birthday on the date of game seven.
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