There’s something to be said about being the hunter rather than the hunted in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Last season the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings, who had to fight just to get into the playoffs, beat the top three seeds in the Western Conference to reach the Finals and beat the New Jersey Devils to win the Stanley Cup.
The Detroit Red Wings have been in the Chicago Blackhawks’ position before — the No. 1 overall seed, Presidents Trophy winner, experienced team, with expectations that they’re automatically going to be in the Finals.
The Wings have met those expectations before and they’ve fallen short to supposedly lesser teams.
But the NHL is not the NBA.
The Milwaukee Bucks can talk all they want about beating the Miami Heat but they aren’t going to do it.
In the NHL, it’s absolutely true that any team can beat any other team in a series.
It’s about getting hot at the right time. It’s especially about your goaltender getting hot at the right time.
Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard has won playoff series before, but the perception of him before this postseason was that he really wasn’t expected to steal a game the way the Kings’ Jonathan Quick seemed to do time after time last season.
But Howard has allowed the Blackhawks two goals in the last three games, including Thursday night’s shutout, the only time the Blackhawks have been shut out this year.
“I always had faith in myself, always believed in myself, that I can go out there and play extremely well in the playoffs,” Howard said. “So far in the playoffs I think I’ve done that but we still have a long ways to go. It’s great the position we’re in but now we got to work harder.”
That attitude is also what makes the Wings dangerous. They have enough veterans who have been through it to know that until you’ve won that fourth game, nothing is guaranteed.
Players like Howard, captain Henrik Zetterberg, defenseman Niklas Kronwall and Pavel Datsyuk learned from guys like Chris Osgood, Steve Yzerman, Nick Lidstrom and Igor Larionov that you can’t afford to get too high after a win and you certainly afford to get too low after a loss.
They’ve also learned that in the playoffs, you have to remain poised. Things aren’t always going to go your way. You’re going to let in a bad goal, you’re going to give up an odd-man rush, you’re going to get slashed and not have it called, but you can’t let it get to you.
Now it’s Howard, Zetterberg, Kronwall, Datsyuk and the other veterans teaching the young kids like Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Damien Brunner, Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl the way it all works at this time of year.
Of course, nothing teaches like experience and the young Wings gained a lot of it at the end of the regular season and in the seven-game series against the Anaheim Ducks.
“We learned a lot,” 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, we won a few in overtimes. I think we got a lot of experience the last month or so and I think it’s good for the club.”
Now the young Wings will get a chance to see how difficult it is to eliminate a top seed at home on the first try.
“It’s a race to four,” Daniel Cleary said. “We feel we’re in a good position. We also understand Chicago is a great team. They’re loaded with champions, with winners, guys who know what it takes.
“I think it’s a great learning experience for some of our younger players that haven’t been in an elimination game. We’ve got a lot of us that have, that have gotten through it, that have been eliminated. All I know is that it will be the hardest game. It’s always the fourth to any team. Being on the other side that’s how it always is, how it should be.”