DETROIT – The beat just keeps going at home for the Detroit Red Wings, seemingly without regard to the skill level, toughness or record of the opposition.
They can win ugly at Joe Louis Arena or pretty. They can finesse you to death or – as they did on Monday night to the St. Louis Blues – they stand toe-to-toe with a measured, disciplined physical game and beat you that way.
The Blues (29-13-6) found that out the hard way for the third time this season, after Detroit rung up a hard-fought 3-1 victory and refused to let St. Louis use brute force, ill-advised retaliation for clean hits and intimidation tactics to goad them into losing their focus.
"We know what our style is, but sometimes you do have to adapt," said Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart, whose big hit on Alex Pietrangelo at the end of the first period sparked Detroit's comeback from an early one-goal deficit. "There's certain teams that you're just not going to beat without doing certain things and we talk about it before the game.”
That's what happened in this game, as the Blues came out hard physically and took it to the Wings – who fell behind 1-0 at 9:12 of the first period on a goal by Scott Nichol that began with a poorly-timed Red Wings' line change.
Stuart turned out to be the catalyst of the comeback by leveling Pietrangelo near the Detroit blue line – which got the attention of St. Louis power forward Chris Stewart, who immediately skated in and gave Stuart no choice but to fight.
Stuart got a fighting major, but the Blues' Stewart was assessed an instigating minor plus a 10-minute misconduct to go with his fighting major – which wound up giving Detroit 1:39 of power-play time to start the second period.
"He's one of the guys on our team that you have to protect," Stewart said of Pietrangelo. "I have no problem doing that. That's something that comes first nature."
Scoring highlight-reel goals comes naturally for Pavel Datsyuk, however, and he made the Blues pay for Stewart's transgressions with his 14th goal of the season to cap the ensuing man-advantage just 51 seconds into the second period.
That set the stage for Johan Franzen to give the Wings the eventual game-winning goal – his League high ninth – about eight minutes later off a backhand shot of a loose puck near the crease that went between Jaroslav Halak's pad and the right post.
That made it 2-1 Detroit and the Wings made it stand up with solid work on defense and several big stops by goalie Jimmy Howard – who leads the NHL with 30 wins and made 21 saves.
Detroit put the game away late in the third, after Blues defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo took exception to a hit by Darren Helm on Pietrangelo behind the St. Louis net.
Colaiacovo put Helm in a semi-headlock to the right of the net as play continued and then shoved Helm repeatedly in front of the crease – seemingly trying to goad Helm into a fight or retaliatory swing. Instead, the Detroit center took the abuse and drew the penalty. Just 34 seconds later, Niklas Kronwall put the Wings up by two goals with his 11th goal of the season off a point blast through traffic.
After that, things got really heated and eventually came to a head in the Detroit crease after Howard made a save. The Blues kept poking at the puck after the whistle, and what transpired looked like something straight out of the movie "Slap Shot," with players paired off taking swings at each other – including Howard throwing punches at Pietrangelo in the crease.
It was not the kind of style that people expect to see from the Red Wings, but they left the ice with two standings points and a tiny amount of breathing room between themselves (67 points) and both St. Louis (64) and Chicago (64).
"The bottom line, it appeared to me that they felt they could be physical," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought we were physical right back."
Stuart agreed. He also said that figuring out what teams are doing to them early in games leads to the Wings corresponding changes to their own game on the fly.
"There's been games where we maybe haven't done it as well in the first period, but we adapt and we adjust," said Stuart, who finished with four of Detroit's 29 hits. "We figure it out and find a way to win. That's kind of been the key. It's not always going to be pretty, but if you find a way to do it in the end, that's all you need."
In this game, it was standing toe-to-toe with the hard-hitting Blues but not going over the edge. The Red Wings played it perfectly, while the Blues got burned.
"We've played with them in stretches," St. Louis forward Jamie Langenbrunner said of the Red Wings. "But in the end, we've kind of crumbled when the boys got a little rough. The game gets turned up a notch and we take a while to catch back up to it. It's caught us. We start reacting instead of initiating the play. We were reacting instead of initiating, and we started to take retaliatory penalties. You give them opportunities on the power play and it's going to cost you."
It cost the Blues on two of five Detroit man-advantage situations in this game, as St. Louis piled up a whopping 49 penalty minutes for mostly extracurricular rough stuff.
It led to Detroit's seventh straight win and the Blues' first regulation loss in nine games – the last time also happening on New Year's Eve in the Motor City. In fact, St. Louis' last three road losses are all against the Red Wings, who've lost both times they've played at the Scottrade Center.
"It's great," Helm said of drawing the roughing penalty on Colaiacovo that led to Kronwall's goal. "It's called keeping your composure and you pick your spots. I picked mine. They've been such fun games to play in here. Every single one of them's been competitive. Lots of hard hits. It's like the playoffs out there, or the closest thing you can get to playoffs here in the regular season. It's good that we were able to keep it rolling here."