The Detroit Red Wings were hoping to have a much a better start to tonight’s pivotal game against the Toronto Maple Leafs than they did in their previous outing against Montreal on Thursday. I suppose going into the locker room at the end of the first period only down by one goal instead of two is an improvement but it still left a lot to be desired.
Both teams started the game skating with a lot of speed but maintained an apprehensive approach with most of the action taking place in the neutral zone. It wasn’t until almost 4 minutes into the opening period that the first whistle of the game was blown and there wouldn’t be many stoppages during the remainder of the first period. Detroit really failed to challenge Jonathan Bernier with many quality scoring chances and won only 4 of the 16 face-offs during the opening twenty minutes.
And it was Detroit’s struggles in the face-off circle as well as an ill-advised icing of the puck by Tomas Jurco that lead to Toronto scoring the first goal of the game. Just shy of the 11 minute mark Cody Franson was able to rip a slap shot past Jimmy Howard with a little help from a screen in front of the net. Aside from matching roughing penalties on David Legwand and Phil Kessel the first period ended without much incident and with Detroit trailing in most stats.
But something happened early on in the second period and the Winged Wheel began to roll. Momentum came from an unlikely source, a holding penalty on Riley Sheahan just over two minutes into the period. While on the Sheahan penalty kill Darren Helm was able to intercept a Toronto pass and breakaway as only Darren Helm can do but Bernier was able to turn aside his initial shot. Joakim Andersson was able to corral the puck while still in the Toronto zone and pass it to Helmer who was able to bury the puck short-handed behind Bernier on a great second effort.
Less than 90 seconds later Gustav Nyquist kept the momentum going and was able to put the Red Wings up 2-1 with a little help from Johan Franzen and a bounce off of Dion Phaneuf. Toronto’s fans tried to slow the Red Wings momentum by cheering on the home team and it seemed to briefly work as the Leafs tried to fight back but about three and a half minutes later the Red Wings struck again as Darren Helm did his best Tomas Holmstrom impression in front of Jonathan Bernier and tipped in a long shot by Jakub Kindl.
The Maple Leafs upped their physical play over the next few minutes and really forced Detroit to protect the dreaded two-goal lead. The Wings responded well to Toronto’s intensity and managed to earn a few quality scoring chances in the process. It was about this time in the game when the Red Wings got their first chance on the power play after Dave Bolland was called for a rare interference/roughing double-minor penalty against Darren Helm. The power play gave Detroit a great opportunity to go up 4-1 before the end of the second period but the Red Wings power play struggles continued and the boys didn’t get much accomplished on the 4 minute man-advantage.
The Red Wings inability to capitalize on the power play quickly worked in the Maple Leafs favor as shortly after the penalty expired Darren Helm was called for slashing and Joffrey Lupul was able to score on the delayed penalty with a little help from Morgan Rielly who made a desperate diving pass while sliding on his belly. It was a very timely goal that got Toronto and it’s fans back into the game as the period wound to a close.
Needless to say tensions were high as the third and final period got underway. The Red Wings really had to battle against the momentum that Toronto’s late second period goal had given them. Johan Franzen almost made it 4-2 by trying to lift the puck over Bernier’s left shoulder but caught the iron instead. It wasn’t long after Franzen’s almost goal that Detroit got a huge momentum boost from the physical play of the “kid- line”.
It all started around 7 minutes into the period with Tomas Jurco getting in Dion Phaneuf’s face behind the net which quickly led Tomas Tatar and Phil Kessel wrestling each other down the ice just to the side of the cage. It really seemed at this point that Toronto was beginning to unravel. Tatar and Kessel were both sent to the box for roughing and the teams were set up for some exciting late-game 4 on 4 hockey.
The 4 on 4 play was indeed exciting but as the final seconds of the matching penalties expired Cody Franson had his shot blocked and Darren Helm was once again off on a breakaway attempt. Helmer drove hard to the net and beat Jonathan Bernier with a beautiful move and put the puck in the net to record his first career hat trick and put the Red Wings up 4-2.
Toronto didn’t go quietly into the night though. The Leafs played desperate trying to avoid an eighth consecutive loss and almost got a lucky goal after the puck rolled over and behind Jimmy Howard and would have most certainly gone in the net had Brendan Smith not dove in and cleared the puck just before it crossed the goal-line.
Once again the Red Wings took a horrible late game penalty and Darren Helm was called for tripping with less than two minutes left in the game but even with the power play and pulling Bernier the Maple Leafs couldn’t dig their way out and Detroit went on to win one of their most important games of the season thus far.
I can’t help but think about how shortly after Team Canada won the gold at Sochi Coach Babcock was quoted as saying that “he didn’t know how they were going to do it” but the Red Wings “were going to make the playoffs” and I found comfort in those words because at the time it didn’t seem like a such an uphill battle. A lot of time (and injuries) has passed between Sochi and tonight and there has been slumps where I personally counseled myself into accepting the fact the Red Wings were probably not going to make the playoffs.
But tonight the boys from Motown found a way to grind out another big win, if not their biggest win, and improved their playoff chances just a little bit more. Tomorrow they will have another chance on home ice to try to steal another huge victory against Tampa Bay and improve their situation even more. It’ll be interesting to see what they have left in the tank after tonight and like most of you I’ll be glued to my television with my fingers crossed cheering them on.
So enjoy the victory, keep the faith, and believe in “23″ Hockeytown.