CHICAGO – It wasn't too long ago the Chicago Blackhawks found themselves just a step behind the rival Detroit Red Wings in their quest for sustained excellence.
Now, it's safe to say the scenario has flipped – and not just because of Friday night's latest gut punch delivered by the Blackhawks to their longtime rival. Chicago (31-5-4) completed a sweep of the four-game season series against the Red Wings with a 3-2 come-from-behind shootout win at United Center – the first Chicago series sweep since 1976-77 – and also clinched the Central Division title in the process.
The Hawks are 8-0-2 against Detroit during the past two seasons, with all but a 7-1 Chicago rout on March 31 at Joe Louis Arena being decided by one goal. Six of the games went to overtime or a shootout.
"The bottom line is over the last couple years every game's been a one-goal game except for the blowout they had in our building," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, whose team is still in eighth place of the Western Conference standings but just two points ahead of the Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets -- all of whom have 43 points. "They're finding a way to score more goals [on] more nights [against us]. They're a deeper team than we are, without any question about it."
Having to fight for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is an oddity for the Red Wings (19-15-7), who are usually a given for the postseason after qualifying for 21 consecutive seasons.
Yet again, another late goal by the Blackhawks sent it to overtime – this time scored by Chicago captain Jonathan Toews to knot it 2-2 with 2:57 left in regulation. After neither team scored in OT despite some great chances, it came down to the second shootout of the season between these teams.
Chicago won the first on March 3 in Detroit, after Patrick Kane tied it late in regulation and then scored the winner in the tiebreaker. This time it was Hawks rookie Brandon Saad who decided the game's second point with a pretty backhand over Jimmy Howard's shoulder in the fifth round.
Is it strange for Babcock and the rest of the Red Wings to watch this happen against the Hawks time and time again?
"To me, strange is living in the past because you're talking about other [Red Wings] teams," Babcock said. "Same sweaters, but other teams. You are what you are. This is what we've earned this year and this is what our team is. We're no better and no worse than what we are. To me, we're just a team battling to get into the playoffs."
Chicago is battling motivation for the remaining eight games of the regular season after clinching a playoff spot on Sunday and now the division title – doing so in the last regular-season game against Detroit as a division rival. The Red Wings are headed to the Eastern Conference next season as part of the National Hockey League's realignment plan and it might be a good thing for them just to lessen their games against the Hawks.
"I guess it's another one of those games where we don't let up and find a way to win," Toews said. "We're gonna keep going. I think that's the number one thing. We got our division we got home ice (in the first two rounds). We just keep building. I think it really shows that we're hungry and we're really motivated to improve every single night. We want to keep working and when you have the confidence to be able to come back in games like [this], I think it's a huge thing going into the playoffs."
Johan Franzen and Cory Emmerton scored regulation goals for Detroit, while Howard made 26 saves through 65 minutes. Viktor Stalberg scored Chicago's other regulation goal, while Corey Crawford made 27 saves in regulation and overtime – then ended the game by denying Franzen after Saad's goal.
It was a tight game the whole way, once again, but mainly because of Howard in the first 10 minutes of the game. Just as they did in that 7-1 shellacking of the Red Wings in Detroit, the Blackhawks came out flying. The only difference is that Howard was up for the challenge, making eight saves in the game's first 5:35 – including shots by Stalberg, Kane, Andrew Shaw and Michael Frolik within a 38-second span.
After Henrik Zetterberg recorded the game's first shot on goal 25 seconds after the opening faceoff, the Red Wings didn't get another until Franzen forced Crawford to make a save at 4:59 – which made the shot count at that point 8-2 in the Hawks' favor.
Thanks to a pair of power plays, Detroit tilted the shots count and scoring chances in its favor over the last half of the period, but the game remained scoreless at intermission.
Stalberg opened the scoring with his eighth goal of the season 6:11 into the second by scooping a rebound of Duncan Keith's shot behind the net and wrapping the puck around and over the goal line before Howard could react.
It took nearly 10 minutes for the Red Wings to respond with the goals by Franzen and Emmerton, who gave the Wings the lead at 17:39 when he chipped his own rebound over Crawford's shoulder for his fourth goal of the season.
That set up a frenetic, fast-paced third period in which both goaltenders came up big. Toews, however, found a way to beat Howard and set up the shootout. Detroit went ahead on Zetterberg's goal in the second round, but former Red Wings star forward Marian Hossa extended it with a goal to lead off the third round.
It's been that kind of season series for the Red Wings.