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Getting matchups least of Babcock's concerns

by Brian Hedger
DETROIT -- Mike Babcock said he will split up stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg for Game 3 of the Detroit Red Wings' Western Conference Semifinal against the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena.

That said, Babcock insists it's not because of any matchup chess match against San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan, his former assistant with the Red Wings. In fact, Babcock is so convinced matchups won't have the biggest bearing on Game 3 that he actually ran through his planned line combinations with the media after Detroit's morning skate -- a move most coaches refrain from doing.

Babcock wasn't done, either.

He then predicted what splitting Zetterberg and Datsyuk -- who will center the top two lines -- would mean for San Jose, stating that McLellan would counter by moving Logan Couture to left wing on the top line and centering the second line with Dany Heatley.

"The reason I know this is because we've been through this … this year already," said Babcock, whose team is in a 2-0 hole in the series after dropping a pair of 2-1 decisions in San Jose. "To me, it's not about the matchup at all. I liked the matchups (for us) in San Jose. I didn't think that had a bearing on the games. I thought they won more 50-50 pucks and both second periods they've been better than us."

More specifically, Babcock was not happy with his forward lines being unable to keep the puck in the Sharks' offensive zone for more than a shot or two at a time.

"They've been on the puck and ground our D more," Babcock said. "Their offense isn't one and done. Their offense is one and grind. Not that they're getting marvelous opportunities that way, but they're wearing on you and we haven't done that to them at all."

McLellan, while not quite as definitively forthcoming with his planned lines, agreed with Babcock in regard to matchups being an overanalyzed facet of the series and the playoffs in general.

"Our 18 skaters are going to have to be prepared to play against their 18 skaters (regardless) of how the lines are made," McLellan said. "There aren't secrets. There aren't magic trick plays that are going to come into play in the series. I know Mike well enough to know he's not changing the way his team plays. He believes they can play harder. I believe we can play harder. It's very simple. It's easy in that sense."

What hasn't been easy, at least for the Red Wings, is being able to set up shop on offense in the San Jose zone. In Detroit's first-round series sweep of the Phoenix Coyotes, they were better able to control the puck in the offensive zone and make life hard on standout goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.

So far in this series it hasn't been the case against San Jose goalie Antti Niemi, who's made it even tougher by making some difficult saves at key times to keep the Red Wings at bay. Against Phoenix and during most of the regular season, Detroit's fourth line centered by speedy, hard-hitting center Darren Helm helped loosen up defenses and clear the path to better puck control.

In this series, Helm's line hasn't been nearly as effective -- and neither has fellow young forward Justin Abdelkader, who's been whistled for costly high-sticking penalties in each of the first two games.

Abdelkader played center on the second line in the first round with Zetterberg sidelined by a lower-body injury, but played wing on the third line after Zetterberg returned against the Sharks. That changed quickly in Game 2 after Abdelkader took a high-sticking penalty early in the game, which prompted Babcock to replace Abdelkader with Helm on the third line and not use his fourth line much the rest of the game.

Babcock said he's talked to Abdelkader about the stick penalties since Game 2 and plans to have him back on the left wing of Detroit's third line with center Valtteri Filppula and Jiri Hudler.

Abdelkader and Helm, meanwhile, both know their individual performances need to be better and their lines overall need to improve in order for Detroit's offense to get rolling. They need to start making life easier for the top two lines by making life harder for the Sharks' defense.

"It's definitely important getting it into their zone and hanging onto the puck and wearing on their D," Helm said. "The more time you spend in their zone the more chances you create for yourself. It's extremely important to have our line going, creating energy and just playing well. We haven't really done that quite as well as we've wanted to in this round. Tonight is a new game and we need to find a way to make sure we are doing those things."

Within the rules, of course.

"I'm not going to change anything up," said Abdelkader, when asked about his physical presence in the series. "I'm just going to go out there, play my game and be as physical as I can -- but I'm not going to go running around and put myself out of position. There's definitely a fine line and you want to stay within it."
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