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What a game. What a turn around. The Wings, like the Hawks before them, are proving that no series lead is safe. What changed? The middle of the team. Think back on successful Wings teams. They always get big goals from all over their roster. Think Larry Murphy coming slowly out of nowhere in a broken play to put a wrister past a sprawling goalie, Doug Brown fighting a loose puck out of the corner and roofing it from a bad angle, or grinders like Darren McCarty popping in a rebound. In the first three games, the Wings were getting production from their top guys, as well as the needed occasional contribution from their grinders. Datsyuk, Zetterburg and Lidstrom were doing their part, and Eaves, Helm and the like were getting their occasional big goal (all that can be expected from the checkers and most D-men). But the middle was silent, and that’s what was killing us. The second-tier guys—Flippula, Cleary, Holmstrom, Bertuzzi, Kronwall, Hudler, Rafalski (now a second tier guy I think)—were not meeting their quota. In the first three games these guys scored: Lidstrom, Zetterburg, Datsyuk, Eaves. Four goals from the top tier, one from the bottom. The middle: shut out.
Shift now to the last three games: Bertuzzi, Cleary, Holmstrom, Kronwall and Flippula have all contributed goals. Meanwhile, the top and bottom tiers (this time it’s Ericson and Helm from the bottom) continue to produce. So the difference between the first three and last three games is the middle tier’s performance. And this goes beyond scoring. Stuart and Kronwall were landing big hits, Flippula was controlling the puck, Cleary was producing chances (even if he missed that wide open net) and the depth forwards were generally more successful on the cycle, holding the puck down low for longer periods of time. The middle stepping up, in turn, means that it is more likely that when the checkers hit the ice the puck is deep in the offensive zone, so they can use their speed and physicality to keep it down there and then when the skill guys come out there’s more room for them to operate and they can spend less time breaking out and more time in the offensive zone. One line’s success makes another’s more likely and the Wings’ has always thrived by running four lines without any holes in them. In the first three games, the middle was leaking too much water and allowing the Sharks’ too much room to swim (forgive the cheesy metaphor). When the middle—and in particular Flippula, Cleary, Kronwall and Stuart—started stepping it up, the other lines were finally able to flourish.
But the Sharks have also helped us out, partly by repeating mistakes made by past Wings opponents. Namely, the Sharks have gone dirty and petty. Low blows might often work in politics, but the Wings are like Barack Obama: they use an opponent’s cheap shots against them by not responding and making the other team look silly and desperate, like they need to be cheap to win. Remember that series against the Flames in the ’07 playoffs, when in Game 5, with the game out of reach, the Flames went dirty? There was a cross-check in the back and a blatant two-handed slash, among other offenses. And it was a whole team effort, with captain Jerome Iginla leading the way. The attempt backfired. The Wings, showing the class and discipline that have made them the best team of the modern era, did not respond. Instead, they kept cool, took their win, and soundly defeated a Flames team that had, in attempting to pump themselves up, lost their focus. Likewise, Claude “the Turtle” Lemieux’s famous and brutal cheap shot on Kris Draper in the 1996 playoffs gave the Wings added fuel for the next year’s successful cup run.
The Sharks have shown the same lack of discipline and character, and it has not helped them. Their transgressions have not come near those of the Flames or Avs, but their cheapness has been led—as was the case with the Flames—by a team leader: Joe Thornton. It started with Pavelski’s punkish spraying of Jimmy Howard. Those moves had nothing to do with the Sharks’ winning the first three games, the Wings still don’t fall for that; the Sharks won those first three because they played well enough to win. Pavelski, and later Thornton, only made themselves look foolish and offered the Wings some additional motivation. It also made the Sharks that much easier to root against.
The Sharks’ captain then went on to add to the effect. Joe Thornton’s a big guy, but he’s been acting like a little bitch. First, he follows Pavelski in spraying the goalie. Then, he takes a shot at Franzen’s hurt ankle after the play, and afterwards flops and cries like a little child after Franzen lightly taps his ankle in retaliation. Finally, he takes a shot at the back Zetterberg’s knee as Zetterburg is—very classily—pulling a Shark off the scrum at the end of game 6. These are not the actions of a disciplined player, and if your Captain displays such a lack of character, that doesn’t bode well for your team.
And the Sharks are helping us in other ways too. Remember Patrick Marleau? You may be surprised to hear that he actually played in game 6. You might’ve missed him in game 5 too if Datsyuk didn’t make him look so foolish (see “Anatomy of a Datsyuk”). Former teammate Jeremy Roenick was right to call him gutless. Ditto on Setoguchi, Heatley (what a waste of money he is) and Thornton. Actually, the whole team outside of Niemi looked weak. You have to give the Wings credit for that, they’re pushing harder. We’ll see on Thursday if that continues. My feeling is that the Wings are the ones smelling blood and the Sharks are cut, bleeding both confidence and dignity.