DETROIT — The Bruins may be the best team in the NHL. They have a shiny Presidents’ Trophy that says so, and now they own a glimmering 2-1 series lead over the Red Wings, compliments of the 3-0 snuff job they applied Tuesday night before a stunned sellout crowd at the Joe, and against an equally flummoxed bunch of 20 Red Wings.
What we have here is a trend: the Bruins are getting better, the Red Wings worse, and there was nothing about Game 3 that hinted things are going to change here Thursday night in Game 4.
“We were off-kilter from the get-go,’’ noted Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, correct as he was professionally aghast by it all. “We were fumbling the puck around.’’ Early on, the mistake-a-minute Wings fashioned their own end of the ice into the Twilight Zone.
The Bruins have shown themselves to be bigger, stronger, vastly more confident, and their goalie, Tuukka Rask, has stopped 80 of 82 shots (playoff-best .976 save percentage) and is in the midst of a shutout streak that measures 86 minutes, 40 seconds. He has been excellent. But the truth of it is, the Red Wings have been so breathlessly underwhelming, a merely average Rask probably would own the same exact numbers at this point in the best-of-seven series.
The Red Wings, purported as speed demons when most everyone touted them as the No. 8 seed disguised as a Cup favorite, have been growing ever smaller and shakier since early in Game 2. Be it coincidence or not, they really haven’t been “on-kilter” since Bruins captain Zdeno Chara clutched a gloved-fist around Brendan Smith’s shirt collar at the end of the first period Sunday, that schoolyard chokehold seeming to suck the collective wind out of each Winged Wheel.
Just as Smith summoned (wisely?) no pushback in that Causeway call to arms, the Wings have been virtually without resistance or attack ever since. Even worse, in Game 3, they essentially punched themselves in the face with a first period that included two Boston goals (Doug Hamilton, Jordan Caron) and an assortment of home-groan boo-boos that even had the wisened Pavel Datsyuk tossing the puck around like he’d just gotten off the boat from Sverdlovsk. Aside: I know, there is no water in Sverdlovsk. Maybe I was misinformed, OK?
The boo-boos also included Hamilton picking off a puck, dashing by a non-resistant Darren Helm around the blue line, and firing his first career playoff goal past a once-again not-ready-for-Cup-time Jimmy Howard. Oh, and there was the too many men on the ice penalty (hello, David Legwand) that set up the power play that yielded Hamilton’s goal. Not to mention, some seven minutes later, in a moment that left Babcock stupified behind the bench, there was a botched line change that had all the Wings congregated around their bench. With enough open ice to stage the remake of “Mystery, Alaska,” Shawn Thornton buzzed unimpeded down the right side and landed the shot that set up Caron for the follow-up stuff and a 2-0 lead.
“We were all over the place — everywhere and nowhere,’’ said veteran Wings blue liner Niklas Kronwall.
With lines like that, Kronwall might have just landed himself a post-career gig on NBC’s NHL anchor desk. Everywhere. Nowhere.
And it’s shaping up as outtahere for the Wings.
In part, it’s why we love the Stanley Cup playoffs. In sizing up the series matchup, no one could have expected the fleet of foot, even faster-thinking Red Wings to be such a bunch of stumblebums in such a critical, advantageous setting. The series stood at 1-1. They were on home ice. With their customary sellout 20,066 to back them, they were ideally poised to regain the series lead.
Instead, their quick became quicksand, Hockeytown their self-inflicted haymaker. The Bruins were good, but this was a Red Wings team that ultimately beat itself, perhaps into submission.
“Any way you look at it,’’ said Babcock, stressing repeatedly he gave the Bruins full credit for the win, “we gave ’em two goals.’’
The way Rask is playing, quick and tracking every shot, one goal every 60 minutes could be enough for the Bruins to advance to Round 2 vs. Montreal (just off a Round 1 sweep of the no-show Lightning). The Bruins have popped seven pucks past Howard, and four of them were stoppable. The Wings have potted a pair on Rask, including Datsyuk’s Game 1 winner that the goalie never saw, and a Luke Glendening doorstep knock-in in Game 2 that again was no fault of Rask. Otherwise, the Thin Finn is 80 for 80 on shots he should have stopped.
For Rask, it’s a Tim Thomas performance, minus the hair-raising circus saves that often were the end result of the ex-star goalie’s unorthodox, sometimes danger-inducing, style.
“He’s good,’’ Howard said of Rask. “If he sees it, he stops it.’’ No one is saying the same about Howard.
The Red Wings finished Game 1 with an edge at the faceoff dot, winning 24 of the 44 drops (55 percent). But they yielded prime acreage there in the next two games, the Bruins winning 56 percent in Game 2, and 55 percent in Game 3. The Bruins have been a perfect 9 for 9 in penalty killing, the Wings a substandard 5 for 8.
The lowest point of the series for the Wings was undoubtedly the opening period in Game 3, when amid all their gaffes, they managed only four shots on net. Of the four, only one was delivered by a forward, with ex-Maine winger Gustav Nyquist finally landing an attempt on Rask at the 18:30 mark.
“To be good defensively, you have to have a team commitment’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien, whose club’s mistakes, over 180 playoff minutes, match the number of New England days above 75 degrees through April 22. “We had that obviously [in Game 3].
Another Boston win here Thursday would be the de facto series closer. The difference in these two teams is as obvious as it is stark for the Wings. Their alleged speed has been neutralized, if nonexistent. Their goaltending less than average. Their will, sense of urgency, and pushback just not there.
True, it’s the playoffs, and crazy things do happen, but right now it would be crazy to think this ends well for the Wings. Their feet have failed them, and when that happens, everything else usually follows.