Adjust or Die

Detroit had to do three things to beat the Ducks on Wednesday night. Get in on the forecheck more effectively, tighten up their defense, and try to adjust to the Ducks having the last change. The Ducks needed to get their top guys going. Neither team executed the way they wanted to.

Detroit did poorly on item one, OK on two, and did not have to make any effort on the third for reasons detailed below. Funny thing was, the difference in the game revolved around other elements entirely. In the end, the Wings lost 3-2 in overtime.

So what happened to Detroit? They did not get in on the forecheck. Instead, they used the plan that you’ve seen from them game in and game out every night for years. They got the puck into the Ducks’ zone and parked a guy in front of the net. It wasn’t always the same guy, depending on the line and even who seemed to be available, but the strategy never varied. Funny thing is, maybe that approach is getting a little long in the tooth. The problem with it is that it works when the other team is slow to transition. It’s not so good when they break out fast. That’s what the Ducks do.

Trouble came when they got a guy right on the edge of the crease, behind the other team’s defense, and the puck was moved back up-ice quickly. The fastest skater in the league can’t out-leg every guy on the other team every time, and so the odd-man rushes went to the Ducks. Anytime the one-man forecheck failed to deliver a puck to the crease, the Wings were chasing.

Add to that the speed of the Ducks, which is ironically located not just in lines one and two but in three (Cogliano) and four (Etem), and you’ve got a recipe for a lot of chances by the other team. Perhaps that’s why the Ducks outshot the Wings 34-31. You can discount that 31 total, too, because the Wings jumped out to an early 7-3 lead in shots on the strength of two power plays in the first five minutes.

One thing that went Detroit’s way was rebounds. The team was being outshot by Anaheim as the second period wound along, although they had been taking the play to the Ducks more than in period one. Then the Wings’ Zetterberg threw a rather harmless looking wrist shot at Hiller from thirty feet out. He went into his butterfly and kicked the puck out twenty feet into the slot, right onto the stick of Samuelsson, who buried it. That made the game 2-1.

And what did the Ducks do right? They responded by making a subtle shift as the game progressed, changing up the composition of their top line, moving from Perry, Getzlaf, and Bonino to the first two plus Bobby Ryan. That meant that the trio Ryan was part of, completed by Selanne and Bonino, was now completed by Beleskey. At times, also, when there was a faceoff in the Ducks’ zone, Coach Boudreau replaced Beleskey with David Steckel, a sure thing on the draws, winning at a 60% rate. As the game went on, and eventually into OT, it was the second line which ended up getting the winning goal, so while the idea was probably to get the first line going, the results were what the Ducks wanted anyway.

A strategy Boudreau did not mess with was that of putting the Cogliano, Winnik, and Koivu line up against the Wings’ big guns of Datsyuk, Samuelsson, and Zetterberg. As might be imagined, they did not stop Datsyuk from working his magic with the puck, but what they did was keep him high in the zone. On one shift in the third period, for instance, he held it for probably a minute, wheeling around and looking to fire. He shot once, had it blocked, and got it back. He worked his way across the ice as first Koivu, then Winnik, then Cogliano chased him, but he couldn’t get below the dots. The line did score one goal, the aforementioned rebound opportunity in period two.

But while Boudreau used his change defensively, he did not maximize it in terms of offense, which surprised the opposing coach. The Ducks had the chance to manage who the Getzlaf line played against, and they threw that line out against the Wings’ second unit in the second period, so that it was Getzlaf etc. against Filppula, Cleary, and Franzen. This, ironically, changed an advantage into a disadvantage. After the game Coach Babcock was a little incredulous that the Ducks allowed that matchup. He said, “Filppula’s matchup tonight was them [Getzlaf line], and they decided that, not us . . . I thought the matchup was fine in the end. It was good.”

Good enough that, while Getzlaf scored on the power play, his line did no more damage.

Corey Perry’s woes continued, though he pressed. In period one, he got the puck right in front of the net and took it toward the right, the direction he shoots in. He shot. Howard flashed the glove. Perry was left wondering where his luck had gone. Later in the period, he got a pass and tried to break in on net around Red Wing defenseman Eaves. He was ridden off the puck, almost too easily, like his confidence had taken a bump along with the glove save earlier on.

A further reflection of that was his burst, with ten seconds left in the third and the game tied at twos, down the left wing. He took the puck into the zone and across the slot then waited for some traffic and fired a wrister at Howard. It went more or less into his gut, where the idea seemed to be to go for the long side, beating him past his blocker. His coach still has hope for Perry: “When he gets one, I don’t think he’ll stop at one,” he said.

But if Perry was frustrated, Ryan Getzlaf was not, as he had shown late in the second. With the Ducks having killed off most of a five-minute major penalty that was offset late in the going by a Wings’ minor penalty, he took the puck down center, letting his wingers catch up with him. In similar situations, say, last year, he might have passed. Instead, he let Beleskey criss-cross in front of him, held the puck, and then just fired it past Howard from the mid-slot. It was like there was nobody else on the ice.

One element that the Wings clearly did not anticipate was how good the Ducks’ fourth line would be, especially in the person of Emerson Etem. He flew all night, especially when it came to moving to the corners to grab pucks. In period three, he got one in the corner and paused for the right moment when he had someone coming to the net. That was Kyle Palmieri, and he slid into the crease as Etem threw the puck there. The spotlight went on, but the referee signaled no goal, more to the crowd than as an official ruling. The fourth line of Detroit, by the way, was Bertuzzi, Eaves, and Emmerton, but Babcock was critical of them after the game. “We didn’t have four lines tonight, like we did the night at home” he said. “We had three, not the fourth, and you need everything.”

About Etem, Boudreau said he was turning into a solid NHL player. “He still makes mistakes, but they’re mistakes of effort, and you can clean those up,” he commented.

Babcock put the game into a neat formula, saying, “I thought they were way better than us in the first; I thought we were way better than them in the second; I thought the third was even, and they scored in the third, er, in overtime.”

He added, “We hit three posts tonight and it didn’t go in, and that’s life.”

Boudreau said, “We got lucky at the right time.”

The teams resume their battle on Friday night in Motown.

Notes

The Ducks are now 5-2 all-time in OT against the Red Wings. The team has an all-time playoff record of 57-45.

Please follow me on twitter @growinguphockey. It will be a complete waste of your time, but what the heck? I talk a lot of hockey.

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