CHICAGO – Entering the Western Conference Semifinals, the Detroit Red Wings' hopes of upsetting the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks hinged on the play of their defensemen, especially in the defensive zone.
The Red Wings knew it. Yet there they were in the last 40 minutes of Game 1 on Wednesday night at United Center with pretty much all of their worst nightmares coming to fruition.
They turned over the puck too much against an endless wave of fresh Blackhawks forecheckers. They got stuck on the ice for long stretches and felt their legs turn to jelly. They couldn't complete those desperately needed first passes to the forwards in order to exit the defensive zone for a rush up the ice.
They also wound up hanging goalie Jimmy Howard, who made 38 saves in the contest, out to dry on a night in which he battled hard to keep them in the game. Now it's up to the Red Wings -- especially their blueliners -- to fix things for Game 2 on Saturday (1 p.m., NBC, CBC).
"I think it took way too long for us to get out of our own zone, and when we get out we don't have any energy to attack, so we had to [take chances]," said Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, who played on Detroit's top pairing with Niklas Kronwall. "We have to do a much better job in the [defensive zone] and the [defense] has to do a better job of getting the pucks up and the forwards have to do a better job being open."
It starts with making better first passes to get the puck out and shift the play to the neutral zone heading the other way.
"A lot of times we had the puck on our stick," Kronwall said after Game 1. "You make a first good tape-to-tape pass and off we go on offense instead of spending too much time in our zone. When you spend too much time in your zone, it wears on you after a while. Our guys that need to play offense, they end up stuck in our zone. It's tough to create chances that way."
It's also tough to get fresh legs on the ice with those kinds of plays, which continually sapped the Red Wings of their strength in the first game. Particularly in the third period, when the Blackhawks scored three times.
"They got new bodies in all of the time when they were forechecking," Ericsson said. "They're coming in with fresh guys and we're staying out there because we can't change. So it's wearing on us for sure, and we have to do a better job at that."
They also have to tilt the ice the other direction simply to give Howard a break in the final period. Detroit has been outscored 15-5 in the third period of their eight playoff games.
"I know we've let in a lot of goals in the third period," Ericsson said. "[Howard] can't stand on his head for the whole game, and he saved us in the second period. It kind of comes natural that pucks will be going in in the third if we’re not playing better."