B/R's Greg Eno at the Stanley Cup Finals: Game One Recap

Greg Eno@@GregEnoSenior Analyst IMay 31, 2009

The typical NHL shift is around 45 seconds in length.

Sounds easy, right?

Take a spin around the ice for less than a minute, then skate back to the bench for a few, to rest up so you can skate those 45 seconds all over again.

Piece of cake!

Wrong again, hockey socks breath!

Here’s an example of what I saw last night midway thru the third period of game one of the Stanley Cup Finals at the Joe Louis Arena.

The Red Wings’ Kirk Maltby, when he jumped onto the ice, had his helmet on and his breath inside him.

After those 45-odd seconds had elapsed, it took all that Maltby had to make it back to the Detroit bench.

His helmet was off, spinning around the ice like a curling rock, over in the far corner.

He could barely breathe.

And the JLA crowd ate it up. They roared their approval.

Maltby, plus youngsters Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm, had just spent their 45-second turn making a nuisance of themselves in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ zone.

They created scoring opportunities. They played keep away with the puck. They took some physical abuse in the process (read: Maltby’s missing bucket).

The Penguins’ defending zone was crawling with Maltby and his young linemates.

It was a grand effort, one that typified the Red Wings’ 3-1 win that nudged them ahead in this finals series, 1-0.

And it didn’t go unappreciated.

After the scintillating, gritty shift, as Maltby willed himself to the bench (he didn’t skate, per se, because skating involves moving the legs one in front of the other, and Maltby couldn’t, so he simply coasted), the partisan crowd got off their feet and gave the trio a rousing ovation.

After the game, I asked Maltby if that shift and the fans’ reaction to it reminded him of the heyday of the Grind Line, on which he played with Kris Draper and Darren McCarty so marvelously in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Won three championships, the Grind Liners did.

“You never like to live in the past, but yeah, this arena is awesome to play in,” Maltby said, appreciating the acknowledgement from the crowd for the hard work–not just on that shift but throughout all those Grind Line seasons.

“The fans are great (in Detroit),” Maltby went on. “They’re very hockey smart. They acknowledge all sorts of big plays, whether it’s a goal, or a hit, or a great save.”

On the way home from the game last night, I was trying to put into words how the Red Wings played, because it wasn’t a typical game for them. Mainly because they seemed to put defense first and offense second.

Then it occurred to me.

The Red Wings had won by playing the perfect road game in their own building.

Shifts like the one Maltby and The Kids had wasn’t the anomaly in game one.

The Red Wings played it close to the vest, eschewing a lot of their famous puck possession for an emphasis on keeping Pittsburgh superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in check.

And, if we stumble upon a scoring chance, they seemed to say, then we’ll address that when the time comes.

Rare was the tic-tac-toe passing Detroit hockey fans have come to know and love. In its place for most of the night was grit and determination, and sticks in the way.

The Red Wings, maybe more so than in any other game this postseason, had their sticks in the passing lanes at, seemingly, all times.

The result was a severe limitation on the Pittsburgh transition game, which when it gets going can get a little "Lakers Showtime" on you, usually with Crosby and Malkin playing the parts of James Worthy and Magic Johnson. Or vice-versa.

There were no 2-on-1s for the Penguins. Not even, really, any 3-on-2s.

There was, for all intents and purposes, one odd-man-rush–the clean-cut breakaway that Malkin had early in the second period.

“Well, you try to get your stick on the puck and try to prevent those cross-ice passes, especially in our zone,” Maltby said when I brought up the Red Wings’ well-placed sticks.

“They have so much offense over there [in the Penguins' dressing room], with, obviously, Malkin and Crosby and they’re playing extremely well,” Maltby said. ”You can’t let them have any free passing lanes. Sometimes it hits your stick, sometimes it doesn’t, but you just have to make the play as difficult for them as possible.”

This was a grind-it-out win for the Red Wings. They were only 72 hours removed from clinching the Western Conference Finals. ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun bellyached that there wasn’t enough pretty here, and too much ugly to befit the skill level of the two teams’ rosters.

I can see LeBrun’s point, to a degree, but because there’s so much skill, you’re bound to see it emerge sooner or later. It just might not be as wide open or prevalent as what was displayed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Game one’s first period victimized both goalies.

At 13:38, Red Wings defenseman Brad Stuart made a nifty play at the Pittsburgh blue line to stop a clearing attempt, then wristed the puck toward the Penguins net.

The live end boards at the Joe did the rest.

The puck was off the boards and back at Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury quicker than a Jose Canseco MMA fight.

The disc ricocheted off Fleury’s right pad and caromed behind him and over the goal line.

Stuart made no bones about it: sometimes it’s a designed play to shoot toward the net at JLA, instead of directly at it.

“Yeah, you do,” Stuart said with a sly grin when asked if the end boards are purposely used for ricochets. “We know how to play them here.”

Five minutes later, it was Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood’s turn to be red faced.

Ozzie couldn’t gather in Malkin’s slap shot, and Ruslan Fedotenko made him pay.

As Osgood frantically tried to cover the puck with his trapper, Fedotenko poked it away, moved to his backhand, and neatly deposited the tying goal at 18:37.

The end boards picked up their second assist of the night late in the second period, a period that Maltby said was the Red Wings’ “nervous one, for whatever reason.”

But they survived it, killing off two power plays and dodging a bullet, in the form of Malkin’s breakaway.

Not only did they survive it, the Red Wings took the lead.

Brian Rafalski slammed a shot toward Fleury that went wide. Johan Franzen, the Playoff Scoring Mule, pounced on the lively ricochet and managed to tap the puck over Fleury and into the Pittsburgh net at 19:02.

The Penguins had outplayed the Red Wings in the middle frame, at times pretty soundly, yet still trailed 2-1.

With 2:46 into the third period, young Justin Abdelkader made a play normally befitting a veteran.

He took a shot near the face-off circle to the left of Fleury, and the rebound flew high into the air.

No one seemed to know where the puck was for a precious second or two.

That’s all Abdelkader needed. He never lost sight of it, and calmly knocked the disc down with his right glove, settling it, and slapping a shot over Fleury’s right shoulder.

“That goal kind of settled us down and enabled us to close the game out,” Maltby told me afterward.

So it’s one-nil, Detroit, and while I still believe this will be a long series, the Red Wings keep getting goals from the Abdelkaders and Darren Helms of the world. That makes them awfully difficult to beat.

And as for playing on back to back nights?

“Just get some rest, drink plenty of fluids, and get ready to go,” Stuart said when I asked him how the team would approach playing on Sunday. “It’s not like we haven’t done it before.”

Maybe in the regular season, Stewie, but back to back games haven’t been played in the Stanley Cup Finals since 1955.

Oh, the Red Wings won the Cup that year.

You know how superstitious hockey people can be.


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