DETROIT — It wasn’t the officiating. It wasn’t the heart or character of the Chicago Blackhawks. The difference Monday night was what it so often is in the NHL playoffs – a couple of mistakes, a fluky bounce.
That’s why the Detroit Red Wings blew the lead, blew the game, blew the chance to eliminate the league’s top regular-season team and blew the opportunity to advance to the Western Conference final. The Wings did not blow the series with their come-from-ahead 4-3 loss, but if they fail to win Game 7 on Wednesday night in Chicago, they will look back on the first 10 minutes of the third period of Game 6.
Then again, maybe not. They’d have to fish the tape out of the trash first.
“We made some young mistakes in the third period,” said Wings coach Mike Babcock, “and they ended up in our net.”
Simple as that, really.
The Wings entered the third with a 2-1 lead, thanks to a knuckleball shot by Joakim Andersson that eluded the glove of Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford. Babcock called it “a gift,” and it seemed like Christmas had come for the team in the Santa Claus uniforms.
[Watch: Michael Frolik's nasty penalty-shot goal wins it for Blackhawks]
Motown music played during the intermission. There was a party atmosphere at Joe Louis Arena. And then the third period began, and Dan Cleary fell down as he fired the puck around the end boards in the Detroit zone, and Brendan Smith strayed into the right-wing corner with Valterri Filppula to attack Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Michal Handzus was all alone in front of the net when the pass came. He had time to stickhandle, read a novel, put the puck on his forehand, take a nap and fire a shot past the blocker of Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard. Fifty-one seconds into the period, the game was tied.
“I know I got more time than I was used to,” Handzus said.
Then the Blackhawks won a battle in the right-wing corner. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews fired the puck on net from the wing. Smith was there this time, side by side with Bryan Bickell, but you hardly would have known it because he didn’t clear the front of the crease. Bickell whacked in a rebound, and venerable CBC play-by-play man Bob Cole said he was “all alone, just standing there.” At 5:48 of the third, the Wings suddenly trailed, 3-2.
Smith lost his stick as Bickell scored, and afterward, in frustration, Howard grabbed it and tossed it to the side.
“Two mental breakdowns by us in our own end,” said Wings defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo. “Obviously it was a momentum-changer in the game. But I think we did a good job on the bench talking about it. There’s still lots of time left. Just because they score those two goals doesn’t mean the game’s over.”
Nope. There was still this: Colaiacovo tried to fire the puck on net. It hit the hand of Blackhawks forward Michael Frolik, who took off on a breakaway.
“Fluke bounce,” Colaiacovo said.
Colaiacovo gave chase and swung his stick in desperation. Frolik didn’t get a shot off, and referee Chris Rooney called a penalty shot. Frolik ended up giving Chicago a 4-2 lead at 9:43.
Was it a good call?
Frolik clearly was on a breakaway. Colaiacovo clearly swung his stick. Frolik clearly didn’t have a scoring chance. Former NHL referee Kerry Fraser tweeted that he thought it was a good call, and of course, the Blackhawks concurred. “I believe 100 percent they made the right call,” Toews said.
[Eulogy: Remember the New York Rangers]
Colaiacovo said he thought he hit Frolik on the pants, not even on the hand or stick, and Howard thought Frolik was losing the puck already, anyway. A neutral expert told Yahoo! Sports the call was “chintzy,” and of course, the Wings concurred. “It looked weak from the bench,” said Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg.
After a bad call (a trip on Pavel Datsyuk) and a good one (a trip on Zetterberg) the fans who hadn’t left early chanted with 1:23 to go: “REF, YOU SUCK!” The videoboard reminded fans not to throw objects on the ice, and it obviously wasn’t referring to octopi. Perhaps only a goal by Damien Brunner in the final minute saved the clean-up crew from a mountain of beer cups and pizza boxes.
But before you cry incompetence or conspiracy, take a deep breath. And before you think the Wings breathed too easy too much in the third – they have allowed 20 goals in the third in these playoffs, a dozen more than in any other period – know that wasn’t the problem, either.
“I don’t think we did that,” Zetterberg said. “I don’t think that’s the case why they scored those two quick ones. I think they …”
“They had a good forecheck there,” he continued. “We didn’t really execute, and two pucks end up in our net.”
“Just blown coverages?” he was asked.
Smith left the building without talking to reporters, and his teammates protected him as best they could. They said they didn’t see the plays or needed to see the replays, almost as much as they said that had someone told them they would be going to Chicago for a Game 7, they would have taken it.
“We’ll try to learn from our mistakes,” Howard said.
In an odd way, that’s what this season has been all about for the Red Wings. They lost three of their top four defensemen the past two years – Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and, of course, Nicklas Lidstrom, a seven-time winner of the Norris Trophy. They have suffered injuries and other personnel losses, and so they have had to give more prominent roles to young players, living with their successes, dying with their mistakes, learning on the fly.
Andersson is a 24-year-old rookie. He scored the go-ahead goal. Smith is a 24-year-old rookie. He screwed up and put them behind.
“Everyone wants to blame our youth all the time, but our youth is what’s got us here to where we’re at,” said Colaiacovo, a 30-year-old veteran. “We don’t use that as an excuse anymore.”
So be it. The Wings had a 3-1 series lead. They had two chances to finish off the Blackhawks. They failed to do it. But who knows what will happen next?
The Wings weren’t necessarily supposed to make the playoffs; they won their final four games to sneak in. They weren’t supposed to upset the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round; they rallied from 2-1 and 3-2 deficits and won Game 7 on the road. They weren’t supposed to last long after a 4-1 loss in Game 1 in Chicago; they won three straight.
They weren’t supposed to be in position to blow this.
“I even think that tonight gives us a sense of confidence,” said Babcock, spinning hard, but making sense. “It’s not like they came in here and squashed us or anything. They got what we gave them tonight, period, in my mind.”
On to Game 7, to see who learns from his mistakes, to label more heroes and goats, to determine how this will be remembered – or if it will be remembered at all.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• T.J. Galiardi, Sharks force winner-take-all Game 7 with Kings
• Breaking down the NHL's 'cap recapture' rule
• EA Sports NHL '14 cover battle down to two goalies