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NHL on NBC: A Season-Ending Showdown

04/04/2008 12:24 PM

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Chicago's rookie sensations, Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews, will test the mettle of the NHL's best goaltending Sunday when Detroit hosts the Blackhawks at Joe Louis Arena at 12:30 p.m. ET on the season-ending NHL on NBC game.

Kane is in a heated battle with Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom for the rookie scoring lead, and Toews is contesting third place with Phoenix forward Peter Mueller. Both Kane, who has played every game this season, and Toews, who missed 18 games with injury, are scoring at an 0.86 points-per-game rate.

Scoring likely won't come easy for the phenoms Sunday, though, as Detroit netminders Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood are the leaders in the running for the William M. Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltenders of the team that surrenders the fewest goals during the regular season.

For your viewing pleasure, enlisted the services St. Louis assistant coach Brad Shaw, the former head coach of the New York Islanders, to analyze the game. The Blues share the Central Division with both Chicago and Detroit and have played each team eight times this year.

Brad Shaw's analysis:

The Blackhawks are a team that uses pressure to create offense while Detroit is a counter-attacking team. Chicago has had success against Detroit this year. They were 4-0 against Detroit when the Red Wings' loss total for the season was still in the single digits.

Injuries have really hurt the Blackhawks, yet they have contended for a playoff spot into the final week of the regular season. Detroit, on the other hand, has been the best team in the NHL all season, despite its injuries. But the Red Wings are getting a late challenge for the League’s best record from San Jose.

Blackhawks offense

The Blackhawks have been relying mainly on two 19-year-olds, Kane and Toews, and a guy who has had a breakthrough year in Patrick Sharp. They create a lot of chances with their pressure, two-man forecheck and they are very physical.

The Blackhawks test your ability to play under pressure, and if you fail that test, they take it hard to the net and use their high forward for a lot of shots. They really have hung their hat on puck pursuit. The Blackhawks are an energy team, a skating team, and they generate a lot off their forecheck and the pressure it creates.

The first line is Kane, Toews and Dustin Byfuglien, a converted defenseman and a monster of a man with decent skills who is a good skater. I hear our guys talk about how strong he is. Byfuglien has unlimited potential. Who knows how good this guy can get? When you can succeed with three guys with that little experience, it bodes well for the future.

Sharp, Jason Williams and Robert Lang make up the second line. Sharp has almost doubled his career goals this season. He had 39 goals in the past four seasons and 36 this year. He seems to have excelled within the new rules. A few guys have benefited and I don't think anyone has benefited more and that's because he's a smart player who can use the new rules to his advantage.

When the Blackhawks gain the offensive blue line, they are very good at finding that fourth guy coming late. The defensemen have a regular habit of joining the attack, and it creates a lot of offense.

The Blackhawks beat the Red Wings, 6-2, Wednesday night in Chicago, led by Kane's two goals and an assist. They scored their first three goals off Hasek and then three off Osgood. The Blackhawks lead the season series, 5-2.

Red Wings offense

The Red Wings have two players who have more than 90 points this season -- Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Chicago, on the other hand, doesn't have a guy with more than 70 points going into the weekend. Detroit is the only team that can throw two 90-point guys at you. It’s also the best puck-support team in the Western Conference -- and maybe in the entire NHL.

The Red Wings play from a structure, but the way they support each other and ad lib make them hard to cover. Yet they're predictable to one another. That's a huge advantage.

The Red Wings also spend a lot of time in the offensive zone. They wear you down as much as any team in the League. With a lot of zone time, they get a lot of chances and you get tired. They also get a lot of power plays because you take penalties when you are tired. That's one of the big benefits of how they support each other.

Detroit takes as many point shots as any team, and it generates a lot off those shots, whether it's traffic or convergence on net. The Red Wings like to shoot to the far side and beat you on that side if there is a rebound. It's a very smart, calculated offense with patience, high skill and high hockey IQ. The Red Wings can make a lot out of very little, in part because they have eight players with more than 40 points. Chicago has four.

The Red Wings are way ahead of the rest of the League in positive plus-minus players. Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom are tied for the League lead with plus-40 ratings. Zetterberg is plus-29 and Brian Rafalski is plus-27. They take 11 more shots per game than opponents, by far the best advantage in the NHL. They spend less time in their zone and more on attack and the results speak for themselves.

Their transition game is fantastic because of puck support and puck-moving mobility. On defense, they have the three best in the League in Lidstrom, Rafalski and Niklas Kronvall. The Red Wings' defensemen create offense with short outlet passes -- or long passes if you're not ready for that.

We've seen clips where Datsyuk will almost let you win the puck initially, knowing he can pick your pocket and he's in an offensive positon and you've lost position. Datsyuk has done this against very smart hockey players. He's not just preying on the weak and not-so-smart. He's so good at it and it's very frustrating because you think you passed him and now he has puck and you are chasing him back the other way.

The Red Wings are a very hard team to outsmart. Joe Louis Arena has some of the fastest boards in the League and they use it to their advantage because they have a lot of guys with long tenure. The quickness of the boards is an asset if you can predict the bounces.

They will miss the net with shots on purpose -- with Lidstrom, Chelios and Rafalski, it's the short side -- because they know it's rebounding to the front of net and you don't know quite where. They're just a step ahead. The Joe also has very shallow corners but they have no problem creating space for themselves. It's a unique rink that way.

Blackhawks defense

The Blackhawks' top two players -- Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook -- are 24 and 22, respectively. They play against the top lines and they have very good mobility, especially Keith. They compete hard and they are physical, along with James Wisniewski. Keith is plus-28. Cam Barker is playing well.

They've got five defensemen with very competitive natures. One of the key hallmarks of their defense is they join the rush as often as they can, and that puts pressure on the opponent. That helps them stay in games. It's always exciting with them staying involved and they relish that.

It's also hard to predict when they will switch from their pressure game and be patient in the neutral zone. They switch to a defense that looks like a wedge and they follow pucks to the outside and put you in areas that they can close in and take the puck away. Not a lot of lines or individual players can handle that. You have to be more precise and have a much higher execution level because they have five guys in good position and they do a very good job.

Red Wings defense

It's a great defense with Lidstrom, Rafalski, Kronvall, Andreas Lilja, Brad Stuart and Brett Lebda. Chelios will become the all-time games leader which is a remarkable statistic when you consider how long Gordie Howe played.

With the top three, Lidstrom, Rafalski and Kronvall, their puck-moving ability is exceptional. And Chelios knows where the puck needs to go, depending on a situation. He has a huge database of experience. Lebda stepped in and became a very useful player, especially on the second power-play unit and killing penalties. Lebda can jump into the rush as well as any of their guys.

The Red Wings really have a lot of defensemen who can skate and move the puck and they track back into their own zone as well as anybody. Detroit goes back deeper in their zone than most teams and it gives it a shorter first pass and it’s a little further from the opposition. It also gives the defense more skating room initially and it takes advantage because its forwards are lower. Then, the defense joins the rush a lot more regularly than some teams.

Something to look for is when Detroit's defenseman step up into the neutral zone and make opponents move the puck sooner than they would like. They end up not getting the offense they were looking for and the transition sets up the Red Wings' offense. The Red Wings' defensemen skate so well without the puck. They make good reads and they have innate skills.

Blackhawks goaltending

This is a game in which three goalies have been starters on Stanley Cup-winning teams -- Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin and Detroit's Hasek and Osgood. Add in Chicago's Patrick Lalime, and you're talking about four goalies who have played a lot of games and a lot of high-pressure games. That quartet has some pretty staggering numbers.

Khabibulin and Lalime are butterfly goalies with great hands who can make athletic saves. Chicago won the first four matchups this year with Khabibulin, so I expect he'll play Sunday. Lalime carried them through a big part of the season.

Red Wings goaltending

Hasek and Osgood are old-school goalies with no prescribed style. They have some tendencies, but they have an athletic approach. Detroit will want Hasek in net to get him in rhythm for the playoffs. He's been sick and hurt and they want to see him get more minutes and fine-tune his game.

Of course, decisions on which goalies play might depend on whether Detroit is still trying to capture the Presidents’ Trophy and whether Chicago still has a chance to make the playoffs.

Blackhawks special teams

The Blackhawks are 25th in the NHL on the power play. They've been going with the young guys since Williams and Martin Havlat got hurt. They were better statistically before those guys got injured. They like to put Byfuglien in front of the net and get the big shot from Seabrook or Barker. With the other unit, they're using Andrew Ladd, since they got him in the trade, in front of the net on a line with Sharp and Lang. Then, they run the offense through the other side, allowing the right-handers to get in natural position.

It's a structured power play, and they run off set plays more than Detroit, which ad libs with the best of them. Chicago is more predictable. It likes to send a lot of shots to the net for Byfuglien and Ladd. Toews is a very heady player and Kane sends pucks to the player on the weak side. He can really pick you apart. His future really looks bright. They've had a good success rate, considering their youth.

The breakouts of the top two lines mirror each other except that Lang and Sharp enter on the right side while Toews and Kane enter on the left. They work hard on retrieval; they chip it in and win battles to get the puck. They also use long relief more than any other team. They'll make the long pass around the boards. That stops the penalty-killing pressure and gets them back in the driver's seat.

They also use a 2-3 setup. The defense is flatter, and Kane will filter to the half-boards with Toews on the other side. That keeps the opponent's penalty killers more in the middle and it opens seams. We're seeing that from more teams as they try to alleviate the penalty-killing pressure.

Chicago has a decent penalty-killing unit -- No. 16 in the NHL -- but it leads the League with 16 shorthanded goals, four or five against us. Sharp has 11 and Rene Bourque has five. They're very disciplined, don't cheat and they pressure. The Blackhawks take advantage of every mistake.

They typically use a diamond forecheck through the neutral zone. If the up-ice pressure isn't effective, they set up with a forward high, another wide, a defenseman wide and a defenseman back. In their zone, their forwards pressure higher than most teams. They bank on pressure to get turnovers. If you make mistakes against them, you open seams and they are very aggressive with their sticks. I've seen first-hand how smart they are and how hard they come at you.

Red Wings special teams

The Red Wings score on 20.6 percent of power plays and they're successful on 84.4 percent of penalty kills. Added together, that's 105.0. Anything more than 102 or 103 is fantastic and they're well past that.

Rafalski stepped in and blended well with Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Holmstrom and Lidstrom. He's been a key asset.

Detroit is so fluid in the offensive zone on the power play that it makes it hard for your pressure to stay ahead of the play. The Red Wings are the hardest to defend against. They get you chasing the puck; then they sense you're in trouble. You have to realize when they are dragging you into an area that you shouldn't go.

They take a lot of point shots and get a lot of traffic in front of the net. Every power play wants to establish that and they do a great job. Johan Franzen stepped in and did a great job in Holmstrom's absence.

Dan Cleary, Jiri Hudler, Mikael Samuelsson, Kronwall and either Derek Meech or Lebda are on the second unit. Sometimes they put Samuelsson at the point and use Valtteri Filppula up front. They have a lot of guys they can put in there.

They can wear you down with point shots and traffic and their retrieval they do better than anyone else. That sets up the next shot and traffic and convergence. When they're on, you don't have the opportunity to pressure them. You need a goalie who is very good.

Their breakout is unique through the neutral zone. They have Zetterberg and Datsyuk come behind the puck, offering support. Datsyuk is the key target but they also hit Zetterberg in full stride. When Lidstrom carries it up, he freezes everyone. Most teams have one guy delayed, but Detroit uses two. We really had to scratch our heads and think of ways to make it less dangerous.

Detroit's penalty kill is very aggressive. They swing the first forward and take away your best option. He'll be swinging left on Kane. The second forward in mid-ice pressures the next pass and they have very good depth. The other three read off the first forward. They're out to take away the first option. They use their skill players, Zetterberg and Datsyuk, as well as Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. That keeps them in the game and gets them more minutes. If you make a mistake, it gets dicey. If they're on, you have to have your passes right on the stick

They use Chelios and Lidstrom on the penalty kill and I don't know if there have ever been two smarter players. Chelios is a wild card because he'll run all over the ice. He'll run out of position because he knows you aren't ready for it. He does it 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill, in the offensive zone as well as the defensive zone. They are calculated risks that work. Nine out of 10 times, most teams play safer knowing he's not giving up much.