DETROIT – It's become a tradition in this city every time it gets to be this time of year.
Once the Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to start, the place they call "Hockeytown" comes to life – abuzz with talk about Detroit Red Wings hockey, octopi, the team's illustrious history and, oh yeah, the quest for the Motor City's 12th championship.
Wednesday night's atmosphere inside Joe Louis Arena only heightened the excitement.
There was one giant, inflatable purple octopus that started things off, three more real octopi hitting the ice before the first puck drop and then the Red Wings coming though with a 4-2 win against the Phoenix Coyotes – taking a 1-0 lead in this Western Conference quarterfinal series.
Detroit scored three second-period goals after killing off five early Phoenix power plays to take a commanding 3-1 lead into the third period and rolled from there. Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen and Brian Rafalski each scored in the second, while Jiri Hudler scored in the third for the Wings – who killed off six power plays in all and got a sterling performance out of goalie Jimmy Howard (26 saves).
"I think it was very important for us," Howard said. "Things haven't been going well for us at home down the stretch. It's something that we needed to change."
Maybe the thing that needed to change was the season. It's no longer the regular season, and all it took to figure that out was one look around this building – which was teeming with playoff-crazed fans waving white towels commemorating the Red Wings' 20th-straight playoff appearance.
Almost in lock step with the fans, the Red Wings always seem to take it up a notch once the postseason rolls around – and Wednesday night was no different. Franzen, who only scored twice in the final 27 games he played of the regular season, summarized aptly why he and the Wings seem to flip a switch every spring.
"We turn it on," he said, when asked why he seems to improve in the playoffs. "The team turns it on, and I'm just following along."
In this game, it took about 25 minutes of the Coyotes controlling the action and taking an early 1-0 lead before the Wings got things going.
It also took a parade to the penalty box -- including a 5-on-3 in the first for nearly 1:30 -- plus an inspired effort by the penalty killing units and Howard. Once they found the extra gear, though, the Wings left the Coyotes far behind.
For a little more than a period, Phoenix did exactly what it wanted. The Coyotes played keep away with the puck. They went up 1-0 early on Kyle Turris' first career playoff goal. They hit hard, won the bulk of draws, kept Detroit's forwards to the outside and drew a spate of penalties.
The one thing they failed to do was score on all those man-advantages – and it led to their unraveling. The Coyotes also got a third-period goal from Radim Vrbata, but it was too little, too late. The damage had already been done.
"Once they got the momentum in the second period, we couldn't get it back," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "We hung around, but we're going to have to be much better. Our puck movement wasn't good enough."
Neither was star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov – who started strong but began to wilt in the second after the momentum turned during a key sequence. Datsyuk had already scored on a wraparound to tie it 1-1 when Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi fought Rotislav Klesla.
It brought the crowd to its feet chanting Bertuzzi's name and gave the Wings another lift.
"I think it's a good thing," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "It gets the crowd pumped up. I think that's the first fight the Red Wings have had in the playoffs, in my six years here."
With the building still buzzing, Franzen beat Bryzgalov stick side with a quick wrist shot from above the circles using a defenseman as a screen to make it 2-1 before Rafalski made it 3-1 by roofing a point blast stick side.
Hudler's goal just 3:16 into the third made it 4-1 and just like that the Wings were in well in control. Vrbata's marker at 7:38 of the third brought Phoenix to within two, but it wasn't nearly enough to spark a comeback – despite the Coyotes getting a sixth power play just 38 seconds later.
Just like the first five, it was killed off by the Red Wings. All told, the Coyotes' ineptitude on the power play killed all the momentum they built in a solid first period. Despite an electric feel in the building in support of the home team, Phoenix backed up its confident pre-series talk by controlling the puck and the action.
It resulted in the goal by Turris, the Coyotes' first pick (No.3) at the 2007 Entry Draft, just 2:16 into the game. After a slick feed from the corner by Ray Whitney, Turris buried a wrist shot top shelf on the short side past Howard for a quick 1-0 lead.
Less than a minute later, Bryzgalov made a big stop on a snap shot by Cleary from 20-feet out to thwart Detroit’s first shot and scoring opportunity. Everything was going the 'Yotes way. Phoenix even started the second with 49 seconds of man-advantage time left on a penalty to Darren Helm -- and drew yet another penalty shortly after that one expired.
Again, nothing resulted from it and the Wings soon re-gained momentum for good.
"You always have something to play for, but it's not the same," Franzen said of the regular season. "We win the games we need to, pretty much – but I think lots of guys have been waiting for this night. (In the regular season), you still have to take care of business, but some nights that's all it is … business."
1 - 0 PHX
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 DET
3 - 1 DET
4 - 1 DET
4 - 2 DET
Holding the stick