DETROIT -- Members of the Chicago Blackhawks spent the morning before Game 4 of their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena talking about how they knew this never was going to be easy, even if they stormed through the regular season with the best record in the League and won their first-round series in five games.
Coach Joel Quenneville talked of being excited to see how his team would respond to its first test of adversity. After another frustrating performance in Game 4, the Blackhawks now trail the seventh-seeded Red Wings 3-1, in the best-of-7 and will be playing at United Center to avoid elimination Saturday in Game 5 (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).
The Blackhawks had not lost three games in a row all season, but they have now. What happened to the juggernaut? Here are five reasons the Red Wings are in position to topple their rivals in what would have to qualify as a stunning upset:
1. Power outage
The Blackhawks were a dominant team at even strength and on the penalty kill during the regular season, but they were a middle-of-the-pack club on the power play. It never really impacted the team's ability to score goals, but that has changed.
Detroit is stymieing the Chicago offense, and it is easy to point to the power play as the biggest problem. The Blackhawks scored on their first man-advantage chance of the series -- Marian Hossa on a one-timer from Jonathan Toews -- but they've come up empty in each of their past 14 power plays.
The Blackhawks were the team frustrating the opponent and gaining momentum with a strong penalty kill, and now that is happening to them. There is a fine line between desperation and frustration, and the big guns for the Blackhawks -- Toews (no goals in the series), Hossa (one), Patrick Sharp (one, an empty netter in Game 1) and Patrick Kane (two) -- are trying to stay on the right side of it to save the season.
2. Nothing to Crow about
Quenneville described goaltender Corey Crawford's performance in the series after Game 3 in three words: "He's been fine." Well, the goalie at the other end of the ice, Detroit's Jimmy Howard, has been a lot better than fine.
Crawford was better in Game 4 than he had been in Games 2 and 3, but Howard still was superior, turning away several great chances in a 28-save shutout. It is hard to pick on Crawford's play -- there haven't been glaring errors -- but he hasn't made the highlight-reel saves Howard has to erase mistakes in front of him.
If everyone else was playing well, "fine' would be enough from Crawford. They're not, and the Blackhawks are going to need him to meet Howard's standard or better him if they are going to win three straight to take the series.
3. Disappearing depth
The Blackhawks and Red Wings look like similar teams -- elite forwards, a strong No. 1 defenseman, an above-average goaltender who probably doesn’t get enough credit. Where Chicago was supposed to have the biggest advantage -- at least on paper -- was in its depth. The Blackhawks boast one of the deepest lineups in the League, and that was a big part of their success in the regular season.
Not only that, the Red Wings' depth looked outmatched by the Anaheim Ducks through five games of the first round. That has turned around in a hurry for the Red Wings, and their depth players are outplaying the Blackhawks' role players -- at times by a fairly significant margin.
Detroit's third line of Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson and Damien Brunner is working over Chicago's third unit. The Red Wings' fourth line has provided a key goal and been essential to the penalty kill. Even Detroit's defensemen behind Niklas Kronwall have been better than Chicago's blueliners after Duncan Keith.
4 Jumbled juggling
Quenneville has tried shaking up his forward lines to shake some goals loose, but it hasn't worked. The Blackhawks spent the majority of the regular season with three set lines -- Toews between Hossa and rookie Brandon Saad, Dave Bolland between Sharp and Kane, Andrew Shaw between Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell.
Bolland was hurt in the first round, and though he spent parts of two games back on the second line, he's not seeing nearly the ice time he did before he was injured. Quenneville switched Sharp and Saad for part of one game, but the goals didn't come. The coach put Michael Handzus with Sharp and Hossa for Game 4 and Kane and Toews together, but that didn't work either.
5 Second City (pair) troubles
Defenseman Brent Seabrook has spent much of his time with Chicago paired with Keith, and it has been one of the best duos in the League. Quenneville split the two near the end of March, so Seabrook has been skating with Nick Leddy on the team's second pairing.
That had been a boon for the Blackhawks, but something has gone awry for Seabrook and Leddy. Plus/minus is not the best indicator of performance, but Seabrook has been a minus player in each game of the series.
Seabrook also had the most attention-grabbing error when Nyquist crossed over in front of him near the Blackhawks' blue line and went past him for a highlight-reel goal, but Leddy also probably was at fault for letting Nyquist get behind him -- Seabrook had to come from the other side of the ice.
It also is possible one or both of them are playing through an injury, and Quenneville drastically cut their ice time in Game 4. Seabrook played 12:03, and Leddy saw less time than any of the 36 skaters in the game, 8:38.
Keith had to play 30:02 to make up for it, and the team's third pair of Johnny Oduya and Michal Rozsival were at more than 20 minutes despite appearing to struggle with Detroit's pressure on several occasions in the series.
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