It was a line uttered by one of baseball’s boys in blue from “back in the day,” as they say.
To be an umpire, the line went, “You have to be perfect on your first day on the job, then keep getting better.”
That philosophy of the impossible might be appropriate for opponents of the Detroit Red Wings.
You have to be perfect in Game One, then keep getting better.
Because just one teeny, tiny misplay, one little moment of indiscretion, is all it can take for the puck to end up in your own net when playing the Stanley Cup Champs.
Last night, the goat was Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell.
In overtime at Joe Louis Arena (where the ‘Hawks had the Wings right where they should have wanted them; more on that later), Campbell had himself a split second of carelessness with the puck, and moments later, three Red Wings skated in on goalie Nikolai Khabibulin with but one Blackhawk skater back as a deterrent.
Just like that, the puck hit the twine behind Khabibulin, and the game was over.
Series advantage, Detroit—two games to love.
Campbell is a fine defenseman. He’s been a terrific free-agent acquisition for the Blackhawks. In fact, he was one blue-liner that the Red Wings themselves had interest in before he was traded by Buffalo to San Jose at the trade deadline in 2008.
But Campbell short-armed a pass in the attacking zone, slipped to the ice, and Red Wings Jiri Hudler, Valtteri Filppula, and Mikael Samuelsson were awaywith the puck.
Those three coming down the ice on a three-on-one are harder to stop than it is to correctly spell all their names without peeking.
After Game One, I wrote that walls are easier scaled than plowed through.
Shoot up high, I implored the Red Wings. That’s the weakness of Khabibulin, nicknamed the Bulin Wall.
But Hudler, Filppula, and Samuelsson executed the breakout to perfection, and in doing so they came armed with demolition balls, each of them.
The Bulin Wall crumbled—not that it had a chance.
Samuelsson rifled the puck home after the brilliant display of tic-tac-toe passing.
In Game One, the puck was inexplicably left at the Detroit blue line and pounced on by Dan Cleary, who motored down the left wing and wristed a shot over Khabibulin’s left shoulder.
In Game Two, Cleary took advantage of another moment of Blackhawk indiscretion and beat Khabibulin between the legs on a penalty shot-like breakaway.
Here’s Barry Melrose on ESPN.com after Game Two: “If you make a mistake against Chicago, you can overcome it. If you make a mistake against Detroit, it’s in your net.”
No disrespect intended to the Blackhawks. One day they’ll be skating the Cup around the ice, and in the not too distant future.
You can count on it.
But they have displayed already, after just two games in these Western finals, why they’re not ready to be champions.
Too many unforced errors—at the worst possible of times.
Now, why did I say that the Blackhawks had the Red Wings where they should have wanted them? Meaning, in overtime. At Joe Louis Arena.
The Red Wings, as I’ve noted here before, are lousy in overtime at home in the playoffs.
Just flat-out lousy.
They lose far more than they win in situations such as last night’s.
If Game One was the Blackhawks’ chance to steal a game in Detroit, because it came just a couple days after the Red Wings’ rugged seven-game set with the Anaheim Ducks, then Game Two presented a rare second chance to break the Wings’ serve.
Overtime, in Detroit? In the playoffs?
You could practically envision a grizzled dude with a cowboy hat on in the Old West, rattling a metal triangle, yelling about the game to the Blackhawks, “Come and get it!”
But the soup wasn’t on for the Blackhawks. Instead, the Red Wings feasted—for a change.
Of course, one of the biggest OT wins the Red Wings have had at home occurred in 1995 against Chicago, when Slava Kozlov thrust his team into the Finals in double overtime at JLA.
So we’re two games into the Final Four in the West, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record (remember records?), it still looks like a five-gamer to me.
The Blackhawks didn’t start out this series perfect, which is the level at which they must play to win even one game against Detroit.
The way things are going, before they can manage that, the Red Wings will be in the Stanley Cup Finals.