It's one thing to be unable to beat a team. It's another thing to be unable to score against them. That's the problem the Detroit Red Wings are having against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Hawks shut out their Central Division rivals for the second time in four nights as Antti Niemi made 33 saves for his fourth shutout of the season in Chicago's 3-0 victory at Detroit on Wednesday night.
It was the first time in 28 years that the Hawks have blanked the Wings in consecutive meetings -- they beat Detroit 2-0 on Jan. 20, 1971, then did it again exactly two months later. It was the first time the Wings have lost to Chicago in both ends of a home-and-home series since Dec. 31, 1960 and Jan. 1, 1961 -- though the Hawks had a game on Tuesday night, the Wings hadn't played since losing 3-0 at Chicago on Sunday.
"It's simple: We didn't win," Wings coach Mike Babcock said succinctly. "They were better."
Of course, the Wings are playing more than a little shorthanded. They've got eight regulars out with injuries -- and the absences are starting to show.
"They're a good team, and when they play hard and we play hard, right now they're better," Babcock said. "They were better two nights in a row. It's that simple."
Niemi improved to 8-1-1 this season and has his four shutouts in only 10 appearances. He and Cristobal Huet -- who got the shutout on Sunday -- have helped make the Hawks tough to score on.
"We're focusing on our team game and we're some pretty strong performances, not only from our defense but from our goaltenders," said forward Patrick Sharp, whose goal early in the third period made it 2-0. "Whether it's Antti or Huet in the net, we know we'll get a good effort from somebody back there.
"Antti made the big saves today, but defensively we were pretty sound."
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews also scored for Chicago, which lost 3-2 at home to San Jose in between its meetings with the Wings. Detroit hasn't scored in exactly 141 minutes since Todd Bertuzzi's goal at the 19-minute mark of the second period against Dallas on Saturday.
The sellout crowd of 20,066 spent much of the night booing former Wing Marian Hossa, who made his first appearance at Joe Louis Arena after leaving Detroit last summer to sign a 12-year deal with the Blackhawks. He was booed loudly when his name was announced as part of the starting lineup and booed every time he touched the puck. Hossa hit the crossbar on a first-period breakaway and had an assist on Sharp's goal.
"It doesn't bother me," Hossa said. "I was only here a short period of time, but I have some great memories. We came up one game short and I have some great friends here."
Kane opened the scoring 30 seconds into the second period with a power-play goal, beating Jimmy Howard with a slap shot from the top of the left circle with Troy Brouwer providing the screen. It was Kane's 12th goal.
Sharp scored his 11th of the season 3:47 into the third period when he jammed in a rebound off a goalmouth scramble with the teams playing 4-on-4.
Toews put the game away when he scored with 1:18 left, swatting home a loose puck after Detroit failed to clear the zone.
"I think at this time right now their roster is better than ours. It was evident as the game went on and we didn't score," Babcock said.
The Wings and the rest of the NHL will take a two-day Christmas break, with Detroit hosting Columbus on Saturday. The Wings might get forward Valtteri Filppula back from a broken wrist, but Babcock warned that the return of the talented forward isn't a panacea for an offense that's been shut out five times this season -- the most times the Wings have been blanked in a season before Dec. 31 since 1958-59.
"We're getting Fil back," he said. "We've got to keep hanging in there. A couple of days off won't hurt. We need a couple of days to get re-energized. We've got to find a way to score some goals and keep battling."
Sharp also expects the Wings -- who've won the Central Division in each of the last eight seasons -- to get healthy and regroup as the season goes on.
"It feels good to win these last two games," he said. "But we're realistic. We know that the Wings are going to come back with a great team towards the end of the season. It's unbelievable what's going on in their dressing room as far as injuries are concerned. You never want to see that, especially against your No. 1 rival.
"They're going to be there at the end of the season, and until we can beat them in a playoff series or finish higher than them, they're the champs."
Material from team media and wire services was used in this report
1 - 0 CHI
2 - 0 CHI
3 - 0 CHI
Too many men/ice - bench