By the Detroit Red Wings' standards, this season hadn't exactly been a banner one heading into Game 4 against the Phoenix Coyotes last night.
For the first time since 1990-91, for one, the Wings didn't have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and in a series against a team many expected them to roll over, they were down, 2-1. Long a league powerhouse, Detroit had a nervous rookie in goal and a captain about to hit his 40th birthday next week who was minus-3 in Game 3.
Once these Wings were in a game they needed to win, however, the results remained true to history.
Detroit evened their first-round series last night with an almost flawless 3-0 win, stifling the Coyotes' meagre offence and getting a shutout from Jimmy Howard along the way. Putting in a star turn for Detroit was winger Henrik Zetterberg, who netted his fourth and fifth goals of the series - including the game winner - and leads the Wings in scoring just as he has the past two season in runs to the Stanley Cup finals.
"Many of us here have been in this situation and know what we have to do," Zetterberg said quietly after the game, playing down the importance of what was a vital win heading back to Phoenix for Game 5 Friday. "Not panic. If you play well, you've got a good chance of winning."
This was Detroit's best game, one that began with a lopsided first period with the Wings outshooting Phoenix 17-9 and ended with a pair of insurance goals in the final five minutes to ruin a superb outing for Coyotes netminder Ilya Bryzgalov.
The Coyotes, meanwhile, weren't sharp, and looked every bit a team down its captain in the injured Shane Doan and without a lot of answers against a battle-tested Detroit team.
Phoenix struggled the most on the power play, where they've been dreadful all year and went 0-for-5 last night. Particularly troubling was an inability to capitalize on a late 5-on-3, an 18-second chance to tie the game midway through the third that resulted in few good chances on Howard.
"We have to execute a little quicker," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "That's the type of game it was. It's tight - there's not a lot of space out there."
Wings coach Mike Babcock agreed, although after years of postseason wars in the Western Conference, that's all right by him.
"There was nothing flashy about this one," Babcock said.
What chances there were were all Detroit's. Wings centre Valtteri Filppula had the best one in the early going, as midway through the first he banked a shot off Bryzgalov and the puck bounced along the goal line. As Filppula began to celebrate, an official waved the play off - a call confirmed by a video review but which drew boos from the Joe Louis Arena crowd.
After a scoreless opening 35 minutes, the Wings finally solved Bryzgalov on the power play with Zetterberg doing the honours there, tipping a Niklas Kronwall point shot into the top corner with a stick high enough to warrant a review.
That call went Detroit's way, and setup a wild final period, one in which the normally disciplined Wings took three minor penalties and had to grit their teeth through a nearly four-minute disadvantage.
When it mattered most, however, their big guns came through, and Datsyuk and Zetterberg added to the Wings lead late in the third to guarantee both teams will return to Detroit for Game 6 on Sunday.
"For us to be successful those guys have to generate offence - no question about it," Babcock said.
Given how things went last night, they appear to be just warming up.