CHICAGO – If the Detroit Red Wings haven’t seen the best from the Chicago Blackhawks through the first four games of their Western Conference semifinal series, they’ll for sure see it Saturday night at the United Center.
The Blackhawks are at the point where it’s win-or-go-home, trailing the Wings 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
“It’s like every game that you play in the playoffs, it’s the most important one that you can play and they get harder and harder,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said at the team hotel in downtown Chicago. “We know that they’re a desperate team. I’d like to think that we’ll be desperate as well. You want to be as prepared as the opportunity is important and we have to play that hard.”
After dropping Game 1, 4-1, Detroit has won the last three games in the series, outscoring Chicago by a combined 9-2 over that stretch.
“It’s important, but it’s also the most difficult, knocking a team out of the playoffs,” goalie Jimmy Howard. “You’re expecting them to come out and play extremely hard, extremely urgent (Saturday) night and we’re going to have to be extremely focused at the same time.”
This is the Blackhawks’ first three-game losing streak this season. They had just three two-game losing streaks during the regular season.
“Our thing is it’s a race to four,” forward Daniel Cleary said. “Those guys are champions, they’re winners, they know the toughest game ever is the one to eliminate a team. We have to be ready. It’s going to be the hardest game we’ve played all season.”
Chicago began the season 21-0-3 and sprinted its way to the Presidents’ Trophy.
“They had a sense of urgency realizing the importance of the game (Thursday), but knowing some of those guys and their mindsets they know that they can win three in a row, they’ve done it the whole year.”
And what a difference a couple weeks make.
The Wings were on the verge of being eliminated from the playoffs by Anaheim in Game 6 at Joe Louis, only to win that game in overtime and then ousting the Ducks in Game 7 on the road.
“We learned a lot,” forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “As a team here, the last two weeks and so far in the playoffs we’ve done a lot of good things. We did a few bad things. We lost a lead in the third a couple times and we won a few in overtime. I think we got a lot of experience the last month or so and I think it’s good for the club.”
In the opening series with the Ducks the Wings lost a three-goal lead and a two-goal lead in the third period only to rebound and win the games in overtime.
They also never held a games-lead in the series until taking Game 7.
Then, the Wings were outplayed in the opener with the Blackhawks over the final two periods after an even opening 20 minutes.
“Game 1 wasn’t the game we wanted to play,” Cleary said. “We regrouped and had a good Game 2. Obviously Game 3 was another good game, we got some timely scoring from depth players and (Thursday) night was just a battle all game and we just came out ahead. The turn of the series, I don’t know if the series has turned, we’re just in the lead.”
Every player and coach knows the importance of getting out to a good start Saturday.
“The start is important every night,” Babcock said. “I didn’t think we were very good (Thursday), we gave up 14 shots and were very loose in the first period, turned the puck over and weren’t sharp. We got better as the game went on, we got eight in the second and six in the third, so we need to start on time tomorrow, for sure. I think when you’re on the road that first 10 minutes are always important.”
“The lead is important, the start is important,” Cleary said. “You want to go out and play a good road game. Their building is going to be loud and we have to keep our minds real sharp and play real loose. We can’t play tight.”
Since the Presidents’ Trophy was introduced in 1985-86, the Wings are 2-1 in the playoffs against the team that won it. They beat Colorado (1997) and Dallas (1998) and lost to Edmonton (1987).
“I guess the way that I look at it is when you’re coaching and playing it usually doesn’t matter to you what the people on the outside think,” Babcock said when asked about being in a position that no one felt they would be at against the Blackhawks. “It matters what you think and we think we have a good group and we’re determined to keep playing and we have a tough task ahead of us but we’re excited for our opportunity.”
The last time the Wings won consecutive series as the lower-seeded team was 1997.