TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - A true sign of character is responding to adversity when your back is against the wall.
The Red Wings prospects did that Monday night, bouncing back after a deflating 5-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, to defeat the St. Louis Blues, 2-1, and advance to the 2016 NHL Prospect Tournament championship game.
Just 33 seconds into the game, the Wings put themselves in a bind after forward and 2016 first-round draft pick Evgeny Svechnikov was called for tripping, giving St. Louis an early power play.
For the third consecutive game, Red Wings goalie Jake Paterson was tested early with a couple quick shots during the penalty kill. But unlike the first two games of the tournament, the Wings' 2012 third-round draft pick held strong at the onset, keeping the puck out of the net in the early going.
With only a few seconds left on the penalty kill, Detroit forced a turnover at center ice and went on a 2-on-1 break, led by defensemen Dan Renouf and Filip Hronek.
Renouf, a free-agent signee, floated a pass to Hronek, Detroit's 2016 second-round pick, who swatted the puck out of the air and beat Blues goalie Evan Fitzpatrick for a huge shorthanded goal that gave the Wings a 1-0 lead 2:22 into the game.
"That was a big goal for us," said coach Todd Nelson after the game. "Not very often do you see on the penalty kill a 2-on-1 with two of our defensemen leading the rush. But it was a good play. Reno tried to sauce it over to Hronek and he just whacked it out of the air."
Paterson said the early goal was a huge confidence boost for the Wings prospects, especially after being shut out in their previous game.
"It was big," Paterson said. "Just in general, we wanted to bounce back, so whenever you can get on the board early, it definitely makes it a little easier, and the way that we played after the first goal was really solid. We shut them down."
The Red Wings controlled the pace after their goal, keeping pressure on the Blues' back line and peppering Fitzpatrick with shots.
But with 11:07 left in the first period, St. Louis tied the game at 1-1 when forward Ivan Barbashev was the recipient of a Paterson rebound, and the Blues' 2014 second-round pick deposited the puck in the back of the net.
The Wings, though, didn't get down on themselves after the tying goal.
Detroit went on a power play with 1:51 remaining in the first period after St. Louis forward Jordan Kyrou was called for a tripping penalty on Tyler Bertuzzi, who was on the verge of starting an odd-man rush.
Bertuzzi, the Wings' second-round draft pick in 2013, took advantage of the penalty with 35 seconds left in the period, taking a perfect pass from free-agent signee Joe Hicketts and ripping a one-time shot past Fitzpatrick. The goal, which was also assisted by Svechnikov, gave the Wings a momentous 2-1 lead going into the second period.
The Red Wings were the quicker team the first half of the second frame, spending most of the period in the offensive zone, often beating the Blues to 50/50 pucks.
The intensity and physicality increased in the second period with a trip to the championship game on the line for Detroit. The Red Wings had two more power-play opportunities in the closing minutes of the second and continued to keep the pressure on the Blues' defense.
The Wings only allowed three shots on goal in the second period and took their 2-1 lead into the third.
In the first minute of the third period, Red Wings free-agent invitee Mike Borkowski was assessed a delay of game penalty, giving the Blues a golden opportunity to tie the game, but Detroit continued to be stingy defensively. The Wings only allowed one shot on goal during the penalty kill and no real scoring chances.
With the clock winding down, St. Louis ramped up its intensity again, but again, Paterson was up to the task, turning away several shots with impressive saves.
The Blues pulled their goalie for an extra attacker with 1:30 remaining and called a timeout with 1:20 left to draw up a play. But every Red Wings player on the ice put their bodies on the line, blocking shots left and right to help Paterson keep the puck out of the net and preserve the win in regulation, which was extremely important.
If the game would have gone into overtime, because of the tournament's points system, the Blue Jackets would've earned a spot in the championship game, and the Wings would've been reduced to Tuesday's third-place game.
"We had to win outright in regulation to get to the finals, and the players all knew that so they were sacrificing their bodies," Nelson said. "It was really good to see. The guys paid the price tonight and we got the win."
Nelson said he was impressed with his team's ability to respond after suffering the 5-0 shutout against Chicago on Saturday.
"I thought our guys played solid for 60 minutes," Nelson said. "I thought our compete level was there, I thought we executed a lot better, I thought we played our system better. Each and every one of these players gave everything they had tonight, and as a coach, you can't ask for much more than that."
The Red Wings, who lost in last year's final to Columbus, will face the undefeated Carolina Hurricanes in Tuesday's championship game at 7 p.m. The Hurricanes defeated the New York Rangers, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars with a combined score of 14-8 on their way to the tournament final, and Nelson said his team will have their hands full with the Hurricanes.
"They're a very solid club," Nelson said. "We'll be playing for the championship. It's a one-game stint and anything can happen. But if our guys play like we did (against St. Louis), we'll have a good opportunity to win."