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Wings look to eliminate 'Hawks in five

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Jimmy Howard makes one of his 28 saves in Thursday's 2-0 win over the Blackhawks at Joe Louis Arena. The Red Wings' goalie has stopped 86 of 88 shots in the last three games of the series. (Photo by Getty Images)

CHICAGO – For the first time in four years, the Red Wings will be the hunters and not the prey on Saturday when they lace up the skates against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center for Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal series.

While it’s important to finish off the Blackhawks as soon as possible, the Red Wings, who have a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series, aren’t feeling any added sense of anxiety.

“Pressure? No, pressure’s for tires, that’s the old saying,” said forward Daniel Cleary, while speaking to reporters at the Red Wings’ team downtown hotel Friday afternoon. “Our thing is it’s a race to four. Those guys are champions, they’re winners, they know the toughest game ever is to try and eliminate a team. We have to be ready. It’s going to be the hardest game we’ve played all season.”

The Red Wings certainly know what it’s like to have their backs against the wall. It was just two weeks ago that they faced elimination at home in Game 6 against Anaheim. But the Ducks couldn’t close out the Wings, who are now one win away from knocking off the top-seeded Blackhawks.

“As a team here, the last two weeks and so far in the playoffs we’ve done a lot of good things,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “We did a few bad things. We lost a lead in the third a couple times, we won a few in overtimes. I think we got a lot of experience the last month or so and I think it’s good for the club.”

The experience has paid off, especially for the young players, who together, are experiencing the highs and lows of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in their careers.

“I think it’s a great learning experience for some of our younger players who haven’t been in an elimination game,” Cleary said. “We’ve got a lot of us that have, that have gotten through it, that have been eliminated. I think for us, learning anything? All I know is it will be the hardest game. Being on the other side of it that’s how it always is, how it should be.”

It may seem like a cliché, but the Red Wings over the years have proven that closing out a series in five games is a mighty difficult task. Saturday marks the 20th time in franchise history that the Red Wings take a 3-1 series lead into Game 5, but only nine times have they won the game. The last time occurred in 2009 when Detroit knocked off the upstart Blackhawks in the conference finals.

“It’s like every game that you play in the playoffs, it’s the most important one that you can play, and they get harder and harder,” coach Mike Babcock said. “We know that they’re a desperate team. I’d like to think that we’ll be desperate as well. You want to be as prepared as the opportunity is important and we have to play that hard.”

FIRING BLANKS: Thursday’s 2-0 loss at Joe Louis Arena was the first time the Blackhawks were held scoreless this year – in the regular season or playoffs. The last time the Blackhawks were shut out was in their final playoff game in 2012, when the Phoenix Coyotes closed on its six-game opening-round series with a 4-0 win at the United Center.

The Red Wings have limited Chicago to two goals in the last three games. But the ’Hawks have also hit a fair number of posts, including two in Thursday’s Game 4 loss.

“You can point the finger wherever you want,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said Friday afternoon. “We hit a bunch of posts and we’ve had some close calls, pucks in the crease, shots from the point, you know we’re getting chances from all over. We just need one to go in, and I think when you see that one goal go in, it gives you the confidence that everything else is going to happen for you and there’s not much more you can do.”

HOW HALL OF FAMERS DO IT: Thursday was also the third time that the ’Hawks were shut out by Detroit in 78 all-time playoff meetings. Goalie Terry Sawchuk backstopped Detroit to a 3-0 win in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup semifinals on March 31, 1964, and Roger Crozier led the Wings to a 7-0 victory on April 10, 1966.

The circumstances surrounding Sawchuk win are legendary. The goaltender was in traction at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital in Highland Park the night prior to Game 3 at Olympia Stadium. Sawchuk complained of a pinched nerve in his left shoulder, but checked himself out of hospital on game day, posted the shut out, then checked back into hospital after the game and was again placed in traction.

“My shoulder pained me during the game and twice I dropped my stick,” Sawchuk told The Associated Press from his hospital bed. “But it was worth it to get the shut out.”

Detroit won the 1964 series, four games to three.

HOWIE’S A DANDY: Goalie Jimmy Howard has been incredible in this series, improving to 5-1 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in his last six games. His lone prior playoff shutout was on April 20, 2010, when he posted 29 saves in a 3‑0 victory over the Coyotes in Game 4 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.

While Howard has made 86 saves on 88 shots during the Red Wings’ three-game winning streak, the veteran goalie shares a lot of the recent success with the team’s defense.

“Yeah, they’re doing a great job in front of me,” Howard said. “If there’s a rebound laying around they’re getting to it pretty fast for me. They’ve been helping me out a lot and why I think we’ve been successful here.”

UNDERDOGS: Since the Presidents' Trophy was introduced in 1985-86, the Red Wings are 2-1 in the playoffs against the team that won it, knocking off Colorado and Dallas in back-to-back conference finals in 1997 and ’98, respectively.

A decade earlier, the Red Wings lost to the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

Should No. 7 seed Detroit eliminate the top-seeded Blackhawks in this series, it will be the first time since 1997 that a Red Wings’ team has won consecutive series as the lower-seeded team. They last did it against Colorado and Philadelphia.

IT DOESN'T MATTER: During their 22-year playoff streak, the Wings have been the lower-seeded team only 12 times out of 51 series, including the conference semifinals against Chicago. The Wings are 5-6 so far.

Here is how they’ve fared:

1991 – lost to St. Louis in first round

1997 – beat Colorado in Western Conference finals; beat Philadelphia in Stanley Cup finals

1998 – beat Dallas in WCF

1999 – lost to Colorado in Western Conference semifinals

2000 – lost to Colorado in WCSF

2010 – beat Phoenix in Western Conference quarterfinals; lost to San Jose in WCSF

2011 – lost to San Jose in WCSF

2012 – lost to Nashville in WCQF

2013 – beat Anaheim in WCQF

Overall, this is the 13th time that the Wings have faced the NHL's top regular-season team in the playoffs and they are 3-9 in those series:

Red Wings in playoffs vs. NHL’s top regular-season team

1998 – Dallas Stars (Western Conference finals) won in six

1997 – Colorado Avalanche (Western Conference finals) won in six

1987 – Edmonton Oilers (Campbell Conference finals) lost in five

1978 – Montreal Canadiens (semifinals) lost in five

1970 – Chicago Blackhawks (quarterfinals) lost in four

1966 – Montreal Canadiens (Stanley Cup finals) lost in six

1963 – Toronto Maple Leafs (Stanley Cup finals) lost in five

1958 – Montreal Canadiens (semifinals) lost in four

1956 – Montreal Canadiens (Stanley Cup finals) lost in five

1948 – Toronto Maple Leafs (Stanley Cup finals) lost in four

1941 – Boston Bruins (Stanley Cup finals) lost in four

1934 – Toronto Maple Leafs (semifinal) won in five*

*best-of-five series

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose

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