Depth may be the theme of the NHL playoff series between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, since the Wings hold a 2-1 series lead because they have more of it.
However, Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock still maintains the top priority for his team in Game 4 Thursday night is making sure Chicago’s Big Four – forwards Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp – do not break out of the net Detroit’s checkers have thrown over them. While Sharp has four points and Kane three in this series, Toews and Hossa each have one point.
Their potential for a breakout is why Babcock cracked wise Wednesday when he was asked how the Red Wings managed to smother Toews again in their 3-1 win on Monday in Game 3.
“Well, we had wide posts the other night,” the coach said, citing a play when Wings defenceman Jonathan Ericsson knocked Toews down in front of the net only to see him pop back up and hit the post on a scoring chance.
“Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa,” Babcock said. “They have a whole bunch of depth but those are the four guys up front who can’t have space. [If] we give them space, they’re going to hurt you eventually.
“What we focus on is limiting opportunities, not [who] is scoring. If you limit the opportunities, that is your best bet.”
On the other side of the stopping-the-stars coin, the Red Wings are drawing many benefits from the play of their third and fourth lines. The third line of centre Joakim Andersson and wingers Gustav Nyquist and Damien Brunner and the fourth line of centre Cory Emmerton and wingers Drew Miller and Patrick Eaves have produced nine points in three games. Plus, the fourth line is serving as the Red Wing penalty killers, limiting the Chicago power play to one goal on nine opportunities in the series.
“What I feel is at playoff time is as long as you have depth, you can do lots of things,” Babcock said. “Having Miller and Eaves and Emmerton on the fourth line the other night, they were a factor because you can play them on the penalty kill all the time, you can really use them.
“You can play people at different spots when you have depth. When you have no depth, your hands are way more tied at playoff time. All you have to do is look at Boston [Bruins], how important their third and fourth lines are. They are a deep team and [Los Angeles] is the same thing.”
Actually, neither power play is much good in this series. While the Blackhawks have one goal, the Red Wings are still looking for their first one with the man advantage after 12 opportunities.
Babcock spent time working on solutions to his power play in the video room Wednesday morning and then later at practice. The problem here is getting the puck to the forwards in front of the Chicago net.
“We talked a lot about our power play, had a run-through and let the guys see what’s going on and tried to make some adjustments,” Babcock said. “We had some real good looks [chances] but we haven’t scored yet. Sometimes when you get real good looks, then you don’t score, you stop shooting.
“Immediately, we need to get good net-front presence, pound the puck and create chaos. We’ll get one, and they’ll loosen up. But there’s no question right now our power play needs to be a bigger factor than it has thus far in the series.”
Since the Red Wings will be playing in front of 20,000 of their own fanatics at Joe Louis Arena, they have the home advantage, although in recent years the chances of the home and road teams winning are about equal. The early returns in this playoff year show the home team has won 67 per cent of the games, but Babcock is not convinced it’s an advantage.
“This is what I think of home ice: I love having the crowd behind you, I love getting fired up and having last change,” Babcock said. “But what I don’t like is sometimes you get so fired up with the crowd going you lose your emotional control. I think it’s way easier to have emotional control and stick to the plan on the road.
“Sometimes at home you try to do too much individually instead of doing your own simple little part and letting the team game take over.”