In a playoff series against a physical opponent, there’s a fine line between being tough and being strong. Friday night, the Detroit Red Wings were strong, while Sunday afternoon, they tried to be a bit too tough.
It was no coincidence, then, that the Red Wings lost 4-1 on Sunday after winning 1-0 on Friday. The enduring image from the weekend was 6’1″ Brendan Smith attempting to challenge 6’9″ Zdeno Chara to a fight. Chara laughed, mocked him, dropped his stick, and fortunately for Smith, officials then quickly intervened. It was a life saving maneuver. If they hadn’t cut in, Smith could have spent an unpleasant Easter Sunday eve in the hospital.
Sunday, Detroit played right into Boston’s hands by trying to fight fire with fire and match their physicality. Instead of skating away and using their skill, speed and mind, the Red Wings tried to match fists and hits with the Bruins, one of the league’s toughest teams. Rarely does that work for any team, much less Detroit.
Boston is only tough if the opposition allows them that mental advantage. Friday, Detroit played their own game, skating fast and ignoring the Bruins’ instigation more often than not. As a result, Boston got only two power plays. Sunday, the Bruins collected four and scored on two. Those facts mattered more in the outcome than any flu bug excuse or lack of energy could have.
For Detroit, true toughness in this series will be related to their ability to turn the other cheek. Fighting back will only rile the Bruins up, allowing them to more comfortably play their game. Boston could become more rattled if Detroit decides to skate away from the pile, refuse to engage in lowbrow fights after the whistle while ignoring their goon tactics during the game.
As the series shifts back to Detroit, realistically, the Red Wings did what they had to do, getting a split in Boston. Home ice advantage will only matter, though, if Detroit plays a better mental game than the Bruins. Regardless of location, if the Red Wings get running around, yapping and engaging the Bruins, Boston will have them right where they want them, scoring easy power play goals while having the mental edge.
Detroit’s danger will remain if they’re able to be the silent assassins, skating away and refusing to engage Boston’s legions of goon. Being mentally strong works better for some teams than being tough, and the Red Wings have long qualified as one of those clubs. Now that they’re in the notoriously rough Eastern Conference playoffs, it becomes more important.
In order to keep some positive series momentum moving forward, they must remember that fact.
Best Play In Boston: Pavel Datsyuk’s steal and goal. Realistically, there’s likely been no better play early in this playoff season than Datsyuk’s amazing behind the back drag and score on Friday night. To pull a major upset, a team needs a certain amount of big plays and lucky plays. Datsyuk’s play qualified as both, and helped the Red Wings emerge with an impressive split in the series.
What Must Change In Detroit: Discipline. On Friday, the Red Wings had it, matching Boston’s hitting with clean hitting of their own and refusing to get involved in post-whistle arguments. Saturday, Detroit folded after being pushed around a tiny bit, and tried to be the aggressors. That’s not going to work, and with the series coming back to home ice, the Red Wings must be smart and perhaps try to draw a few careless penalties that Boston can be prone to taking.
Stat To Monitor: Penalty minutes. Through the first two games of the series, the calls have been remarkably even. The Red Wings won’t survive putting Boston on too many power plays, so the statistic will tell the tale about the amount of success the Red Wings are able to have moving forward. If Boston generates four or more power plays, chances are they’ll have a major advantage in the series. Detroit must play clean, fast hockey and ignore the instigation they’ll likely continue to face.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax