CHICAGO -- The Detroit Red Wings have done a commendable job of not allowing the Chicago Blackhawks to possess the puck through the neutral zone in the Western Conference Semifinals.
That has forced Chicago to look for a Plan B to ignite its offense, and one particular tactic the Blackhawks like is a long pass through the zone to a forward waiting near the Detroit blue line. Other teams might just be trying to find a forward to deflect the pass into the offensive end to start the forecheck, but the Blackhawks are looking to connect on that pass and spring one of their skilled forwards on a breakaway or an odd-man rush.
Detroit defenseman Kyle Quincey called these passes haymakers earlier in the series, and it fits -- if chipping the puck in and starting a cycle is the equivalent of a series of jabs to work the body, the Blackhawks are looking to throw a knockout punch.
"They're trying to get behind us with those long passes and stretch us out," Quincey said Saturday morning at United Center before Game 5 of a series the Red Wings lead 3-1. "They're making us skate with them. That's their skill set and we have to match it. It is tough. It is a lot of skating."
Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has had to make several saves on breakaways or 2-on-1 sequences in this series. The Blackhawks had success with a similar plan in the opening round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Minnesota Wild also tried to clog up the neutral zone.
Chicago star Patrick Kane has scored twice on plays where the Blackhawks went from defense to offense in a hurry. In Game 2, Patrick Sharp was able to tip a long pass past defenseman Brendan Smith and then track it out down, which led to a 3-on-1.
In Game 3, Duncan Keith hit Kane with one of those haymakers Quincey was talking about. He got in behind the defense, settled the puck and snapped a shot past Howard.
"You almost have to concede that pass and keep the guy in front of you," Quincey said. "If you try to jump in front of a guy and it bounces over your stick ... you know. With Kane's goal in Game 3, you just can't take anything for granted. Keith's on his backhand coming around the net under pressure and he still makes one of the best passes I've seen in a long time, so the defense are very good puck-movers and these guys are very dangerous when they get a chance."
Quincey saw a lot of Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne in the first round, and noted that the future Hall of Fame member liked to mix up where he would skate to as the Ducks tried to attack from their own zone.
He said of the Blackhawks' forwards, "These guys just every time -- they're gone."
"They're skilled players and their job is find time and space for themselves, and our job is to take it away," Quincey said. "It is a chess match. We've been getting the better of them so far, but they're not going to quit and they might have some moves up their sleeves that we haven't seen yet, so we're on our toes and we're ready for it."
Coach Mike Babcock said one of Sharp's breakaways in Game 4 was excellent neutral-zone defense followed by a blown assignment. The plan to frustrate the Blackhawks, a team that wants to dominate possession of the puck, has worked quite well for the Red Wings.
Given the talent and speed some of the Blackhawks' forwards possess, taking away Plan B could prove just as vital as the Red Wings try to complete the upset in Game 5.
"We have to keep them in front of us," veteran forward Daniel Cleary said. "You can't be fixated on the puck all the time, you have to watch where they are. They do that when they're trailing and then they've started to do that at the start of games. They've wanted to stretch us out.
"Just have to be aware of it, if you know someone is doing something, you should be able to match it. They play a fast game. The thing for that team -- they want to get the pucks in the forwards' hands as fast as they can. ... That's what their team relies on; we understand that and we have to limit their space, make their defensemen make a play they don't want to make."