CHICAGO -- Mike Babcock wasn't happy with the way his Detroit Red Wings defended the middle of the ice to start their Western Conference Semifinals series against the Chicago Blackhawks this past week, so the coach changed it up.
After dropping the opening game 4-1 at United Center, a better-rested Detroit team paid more attention to the middle of the ice, particularly in the neutral zone, in Game 2 on Saturday. The Red Wings won 4-1 to even the best-of-7 series at a game apiece, but how they did it was impressive.
Detroit made sure the middle of the ice was accounted for almost all game, from the neutral zone all the way back to its net, and pressured Chicago forwards sooner -- gumming up the Blackhawks' rush game before it got started.
"They do a good job of clogging things up and making it tough to skate," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said after practice Sunday, prior to leaving for Detroit. "Both teams skate really well and both teams are dangerous when their skill players have the puck in open ice. They've always been good at making it tough to get to the net and making it tough to get pucks back on the forecheck. They're a good team at [doing] that."
The Blackhawks finished with 20 shots on goal, which was their fewest in a Stanley Cup Playoffs contest since April 27, 2009 against the Calgary Flames. Chicago was slower than Detroit, which was a rare sight to see. Now it's on the Blackhawks' shoulders to come up with a response in Game 3 on Monday at Joe Louis Arena (7:30 p.m., NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"The neutral zone … we talk about predictability and expectations out there, and I think we got slowed down in that area," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought the neutral zone was probably where we were too sloppy. The predictability wasn't in place. We got stalled making extra plays and they cut off dumps and they broke up plays, so I think getting a cleaner neutral zone is something everybody would like to have."
How to accomplish that is the question.
Toward the end of a media session following Game 2, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews talked about Detroit's increased physicality from the first game -- especially clutching and grabbing -- and expressed displeasure at the lack of calls that made.
Toews also said it was upon the Blackhawks to overcome such tactics. A day later – after stewing about the defeat for much of the preceding 24 hours -- Sharp said the same thing.
"You can work through it," he said. "We can raise our level. We can put pucks in areas that the other players [on our team] know where it's going. We can support each other better. I mean, you name it … there's 100 different things you could do. It's just a matter of not talking about it [and] executing it."
Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith said he also thinks the solution has more to do with effort.
"They did a good job of taking away some of our time and space, but I think our focus is more what we're going to do and I think we just have to compete and play our game," Keith said. "We can talk a lot about strategy and everything, but we've just got to play harder."