Two games into the Bruins-Red Wings go-round, we’ve yet to see great hockey from either side.
The Bruins, borderline stumblebums in Game 1, were much improved in Game 2, at least for the opening 20 minutes, and evened the series despite two fairly tepid periods the rest of the way.
The Wings weren’t all that great themselves in the series opener last Friday night, but banked a 1-0 win, then fell prey to an early Black-and-Gold physical onslaught in the Sunday matinee. Oh, and their netminder, Jimmy Howard, turned in substantially less than a Cup-worthy performance, and that, summer hockey lovers, could be the most important factor as the series now heads to Detroit for Game 3 Tuesday and Game 4 Thursday.
Of Boston’s four goals Sunday, Howard was unsteady on three, including the first (Justin Florek), the third (Milan Lucic), and the fourth (Zdeno Chara). The first was preventable. Howard paired with defenseman Brendan Smith for a grand boo-boo that left Florek with a gift. The third had Howard fronting the net on a short, stoppable shovel by Lucic on a return feed from Jarome Iginla. Howard was simply, well, too beatable. On the fourth goal, Howard was too late to cover a puck in his crease off an initial wrister by Iginla, allowing the looming, hulking Chara an easy tap-in.
If that’s the goaltending the Wings are going to get the rest of the way, they’re done. Howard, the ex-University of Maine mainstay, is better than what he showed Sunday. But Cups aren’t won or lost on past deeds and pedigrees and midseason wins over the Nashvilles and Floridas. Instead, they are doled out in the moment, and Howard, three times Sunday, was without presence in critical moments, especially at 18:16 of the second period when Lucic’s easy shot turned a 2-1 squeaker into a 3-1 knockout punch.
“We got the game to right where wanted it,’’ said Wings coach Mike Babcock, noting how Luke Glendening’s goal midway through the second had the Wings’ game back in gear. It’s 2-1 [headed] into the third. It’s a simple two-on-two cross play, and we don’t execute. Now were down, 3-1, and the game’s over.’’
Which isn’t to say it was all on Howard. Smith and Kyle Quincey needed to be better on the play. But Lucic’s shot was stoppable, the game was on the line, and everything but the TD Garden organ was playing Detroit’s way. Until, pop, the puck went past Howard and the Wings’ hopes went down the Causeway drain.
So, two games into Round 1, and the Bruins now have shown Howard is beatable, even on shots he shoulda, woulda, coulda stopped. The Red Wings can’t say the same about Tuukka Rask. He’s given up two goals, a Game 1 winner by Pavel Datsyuk that he couldn’t see, and a Game 2 side-of-the-net tip by Glendening that was a textbook example of crowd the net and hope for the best.
Otherwise, Rask turned back 57 Detroit attempts over two games and owns a save percentage of .966. That’s best of any goaltender who had logged 27 or minutes in Round 1 as of Monday morning. Most important, he was an airtight 17 for 17 in the 26:40 that followed Glendening’s goal. Perfect when he had to be, which is precisely what wins Cups. Witness: Tim Thomas, Bruins, spring 2011.
“It’s over and done with,’’ Howard mused. “You learn very quickly just to let things go.’’
The Wings, with the astute Babcock behind their bench, will be better able to implement their alleged speed advantage in the next two games. We say alleged because, yes, they have some fleet skaters, but their speed did not dictate play in Game 1 and they weren’t zipping around the rink in Game 2. They probably have an advantage in their skating game, but they showed that only in tiny flashes in the first 120 minutes of this series. Hardly a trademark. Even the boxer with the best knockout punch goes home if he never uses it, never mind lands it.
Armed with the advantage of the last line change, the benefit of home ice, Babcock, if he chooses, now can mix and match his trios and try to find his fastest winger, Gustav Nyquist, some open space. The same for Daniel Alfredsson (age 41, and not nearly as fast as his Ottawa days). Neither picked up a point in Games 1 and 2. Alfredsson, in fact, did not land a shot and squeezed off only two attempts in his nearly 30 minutes of combined ice time. The bet here is Babcock, after seeing only two goals scored in Boston, will be quick on the switch. It’s his speed that could count most.
Keep in mind the unknown ‘X’ factor in the Wings’ attack. Elite forward Henrik Zetterberg is over his back injury and continued his on-ice workouts while in Boston. If he’s strong enough to return, he brings another dimension to Babcock’s scheme. If they remain the one-goal-a-game Red Wings, then that alone could force Zetterberg back to action, even if his strength and conditioning aren’t up to par.
The Bruins, meanwhile, have the strength and confidence that come with shaking off a Game 1 mulligan and knowing that A. they can impose their physical game on the Wings, even if it was only the one period Sunday, and B. Howard, a career 21-23 playoff performer, is the one player entering Game 3 with the most to prove.
Howard is a good goalie and a good goalie once was sufficient enough for the Wings to win four Cups when their all-around talent was deeper and richer. But this No. 8 seed Detroit team probably needs more than a latter-day Chris Osgood.
Today, with at least three more games to go, this is very much shaping up to be yet another series determined by the worthiest goalie. When the two sides last met in the postseason in 1957, Boston’s Don Simmons proved better than Detroit’s Glenn Hall. The Bruins moved on and the Wings went home. And 57 years later, it may not be all about the goalies, but it also could be little else.
“I usually see the puck pretty well,’’ said Rask, explaining his handiwork following Sunday’s win. “No difference between Game 1 and Game 2.’’
If he sees it, Rask stops it. Simple as that sounds, Howard Sunday simply couldn’t say the same.