Game 1 was a lot closer than the 5-2 score indicated at the Joe Louis Arena on Sunday. In fact, due to a sleepy start by the Red Wings, it could have been as much as 3-0 in the Blackhawks’ favor after the first 5-6 minutes. That short hangover was Chicago’s best chance to steal a 1-0 advantage on the road from a Detroit squad that had been tenderized by Anaheim during a nip-and-tuck seven game series. It’s true in so many sports: When you’ve got the opposition showing a weakness, you need to go for a knockout blow. It’s especially true when you are facing a superior opponent. Otherwise, you may not get another chance.
The highly entertaining, breakneck pace of Sunday afternoon’s game stayed constant throughout. 75 SOG between the teams would have been a lot for a regular season game, where teams average a little under 30 SOG per game. For the supposedly tighter-to-the-vest playoffs, the number of shots was both unusual and refreshing to see.
On the surface, things might look grim for the Blackhawks going forward if you consider the following factors from Game 1 as indicative of how the series will continue to play out:
- The shot advantage of 43 to 32 in Detroit’s favor;
- The superior goaltending to date of Chris Osgood versus Nikolai Khabibulin (.922 to .897 save percentage in the playoffs);
- The way the Red Wings shut down top line studs Jonathan Toews (34 Goals, 35 Assists, 69 Points, +12 plus/minus, +9.6 offensive GVT) and Patrick Kane (25 Goals, 45 Assists, 70 Points, -2 plus/minus, +9.1 offensive GVT) to a combined 0 Points, 3 SOG and -6 plus/minus rating
How can Chicago overcome those deficiencies?
1. More shots on goal than your opponent while posting a better save percentage is pretty much guaranteed to win you games, isn’t it? Therefore, to have a chance to win, Chicago must change one or both. Anaheim managed to beat San Jose and to push Detroit to the brink by offsetting a large shot disadvantage with a distinct goaltending advantage. What is reassuring for Chicago is that the shot advantage is not as great as it seems. Adding in missed shots and attempts blocked, total attempts on goal were essentially equal for the two teams:
Team Shots on goal Missed shots Attempts blocked Total Attempts
Detroit 43 11 7 61
Chicago 32 5 20 57
The task for Chicago, of course, will be to even up the battle of the blocks, as the 13 blocked shot difference was worth more than a goal to the Red Wings.
2. Both goaltenders were part of fairly even regular season tandems. Not so in the postseason, where Ty Conklin and Cristobal Huet have been stuck to the pine by the common playoff strategy of going with one netminder unless they clearly prove themselves incapable. Unlike Bruce Boudreau of the Caps, Joel Quenneville has decided to stick with his underperforming goalie, though Khabibulin does have a Stanley Cup championship to show on his CV as opposed to Jose Theodore. Still, the Blackhawks have been somewhat fortunate to make it through the first two rounds of the playoffs in six games apiece with the significantly underachieving Nikolai Khabibulin. While Khabibulin looked sharp for stretches of Game 1, the fact is that his playoff save percentage is a weak .897 over a reasonable sample set of 13 games.
Prior to the postseason, Khabibulin had favorable factors of a .922 career playoff save percentage over 57 games, a .919 regular season save percentage and a very manageable 1192 SOGA, but in this case, statistical indications have not led to future performance. Therefore, going with the option of Cristobal Huet (.919 career postseason save percentage, .909 regular season save percentage, 1087 SOGA) in net would seem like a valid option to the Chicago coaching staff, to try to turn the save percentage battle from a disadvantage to an advantage.
At the other end of the ice, Osgood continues to post a .922 save percentage while giving up sloppy goals like that of Adam Burish’s toss through his wickets and load of rebounds that somehow only occasionally result in goals, such as Kris Versteeg’s. Overall, Detroit’s defense has done a commendable job of minimizing SOGA as well as minimizing the effects of the frequent rebounds. The Chicago forwards would do well to crash Osgood more, hunting for some of those goodies that he gives up so often.
3. Jonathan Toews (0 Goals, 0 Assists, 0 Points, 3 SOG, -3 plus/minus) had a bad day at the office, but Patrick Kane's day (0 Goals, 0 Assists, 0 Points, 0 SOG, -3 plus/minus) was even worse. While these two need to excel for Chicago to compete, the outstanding play of Zetterberg-Franzen-Cleary is hiding the underachieving play of top Detroit forwards Pavel Datsyuk (32 Goals, 65 Assists, 97 Points, +34 plus/minus, +24.4 total GVT), Marian Hossa (40 Goals, 31 Assists, 71 Points, +27 plus/minus, +19.7 total GVT) and Tomas Holmstrom (14 Goals, 23 Assists, 37 Points, +18 plus/minus, +8.3 total GVT). The difference in performance between Detroit’s two top lines has felt like night and day in comparison to expected levels (based on regular season pace over 12 playoff games):
Detroit Red Wings - Actual vs. expected performance over 12 games
Player Pos G A P +/-
Johan Franzen C +3.3 +4.8 +8.0 +6
Henrik Zetterberg L +2.2 +2.5 +4.6 +9
Daniel Cleary R +2.7 +1.8 +4.5 +13
Brad Stuart D +0.6 +3.7 +4.3 +6
Justin Abdelkader L +0.0 +3.0 +3.0 +3
Valtteri Filppula C -1.8 +3.8 +2.0 +5
Nicklas Lidstrom D +0.5 +1.4 +1.9 +3
Darren Helm C +2.0 -0.8 +1.3 +5
Mikael Samuelsson R +1.2 -0.1 +1.1 +4
Jonathan Ericsson D +0.4 +0.1 +0.5 +8
Brett Lebda D -1.1 +1.2 +0.0 +3
Chris Chelios D +0.0 +0.0 +0.0 -3
Jiri Hudler C +0.6 -1.0 -0.3 +1
Kirk Maltby L -0.8 +0.3 -0.5 -1
Tomas Kopecky R -0.9 -0.5 -1.4 +1
Derek Meech D -0.6 -1.5 -2.0 +4
Kris Draper C -1.1 -1.5 -2.6 +8
Niklas Kronwall D +0.1 -2.8 -2.7 +3
Brian Rafalski D +0.2 -4.1 -3.9 +9
Tomas Holmstrom L -1.2 -3.2 -4.4 -5
Marian Hossa R -2.5 -2.0 -4.5 -2
Pavel Datsyuk C -3.7 -5.6 -9.4 -1
In particular, the fact that Hart Trophy candidate Datsyuk has posted 9.4 points less than expected by regular season scoring levels over the 12 games is hard to fathom.
Will we get a long series? Most of the hockey world certainly hopes so, as Game 1 was immensely entertaining to watch. Here’s to hoping for seven games.
Déjà vu? Dan Cleary’s second goal of the Game 1 bore significant resemblances to Detroit’s opening goal in Game 7 against the Ducks. In both cases, Niklas Kronwall started the attack, feeding Henrik Zetterberg on the left boards. Zetterberg confused the defense by zipping a cross-ice pass to countryman Johan Franzen after entering the offensive zone. Franzen then fired a shot, meant for deflection at the front of the net. Masterful tip-ins were made by Jiri Hudler against Anaheim and Dan Cleary against Chicago. Opposing coaches would be wise to study up on this attacking scheme.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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