DETROIT – Watching the Detroit Red Wings play, it seems as if they’ve always got the puck.
That was the case Thursday night when they defeated the Dallas Stars 4-1 in the NHL’s Western Conference final, and it all started with faceoffs. The Wings won 35 of 56 draws, a success rate of 63 per cent. They were even sharper on power plays in winning 11 of 15 or 73 per cent, which helped them fire in three goals with Stars in the penalty box.
Considering that a forward’s average shift is about 40 seconds, it is of tremendous important to get the puck as soon as possible after jumping onto the ice.
“Instead of chasing the puck for 20 seconds, it’s nice to have it right away,” says Henrik Zetterberg, who won 12 faceoffs and lost only five. “Most of the time, if you win a lot of the faceoffs, you take the momentum in games.”
During Wings practices, coaches will work two players at a time through faceoff drills that incite laughter and good-natured teasing.
“You have to have fun out there,” Zetterberg said after practice Friday. “We usually do it at the end of practice.
“It’s a good exercise for us to do that.”
Valtteri Filppula won nine of the 12 faceoffs he took, Kris Draper won nine of 15, and Dan Cleary won all four he took.
On the other side, Brad Richards was 5-for-17, Mike Ribeiro was 5-for-15 and Mike Modano was 3-for-10.
“They have good faceoff people so I don’t expect (Detroit’s dominance at draws) to continue,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. “Yet, it’s something we take a lot of pride in.
“I think we were the best in the league this year and we want to continue to do that.”
It helped, of course, that as home team the Red Wings’ centres are allowed to be last to get into position for the drop of the puck.
“That’s a key that gets overlooked,” Richards said of the importance of winning faceoffs. “It is definitely something we’ve got to work on.
“Numerous times (in Game 1), pucks were just lying there and they were beating us to pucks out of faceoffs. That was a product of how we played. We were a little behind in every aspect of the game. We just weren’t on.”
The Red Wings have been entirely on for some time now. They’ve won seven in a row. They haven’t lost since April 16. They’re perfect since inserting Chris Osgood in the nets in place of Dominik Hasek.
“We have a good mix,” Zetterberg said of the Wings’ roster. “Last year we went to the conference final and it was a good experience for the guys who hadn’t been there before.
“We kept the core group for this year and made some good additions.”
Meanwhile, the Stars hope to play a much more up-tempo game when the series resumes Saturday night (7 p.m. ET).
“We really weren’t skating very well and moving the puck (Thursday),” Modano said. “That’s a big part of our game and when we’re not doing those things we’re not very effective.”
Hits were 31-30 in Detroit’s favour in the opener. Expect to see more Stars throwing their weight around Joe Louis Arena after the skates are laced up again.
“Shots and scoring chances go up, being physical and arriving on hits and causing turnovers – they’re all related to skating,” said Modano.
Game 1 was a wakeup call, he said.
“It showed us how good that team is and how well they play,” he said. “They’re structure is pretty solid.
“They do a lot of little things that make it difficult for you. We learned from it, and we’ll push back (Saturday night).”
The Stars won the opening games over Anaheim and San Jose in the previous two rounds.
“Each series you have to take it up a notch and this is no exception,” said Modano. “The level has to be much higher.
“That’s a challenge for us and a lot of guys who haven’t been in this situation before to get ourselves back in the series.”
Modano has to come alive against a team he’s enjoyed scant success if the Stars are to advance to the Stanley Cup final. He didn’t earn a point in four games against Detroit during the regular season, and he was again held off the scoresheet in Game 1. He managed one shot on Osgood.
Centre Stu Barnes, who missed the last four Dallas games dealing with concussion symptoms, participated fully in practice and he’d provide a boost, especially on faceoffs, if he could play Saturday.
“He looked better out there,” said coach Dave Tippett. “We’ll evaluate him in the morning.”
Tippett suggested goalie Marty Turco, who now is 0-8-2 in NHL career decisions at The Joe, has to be more aggressive in contending with forwards such as Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen, who crowd the crease to deflect in goals. Each stuck out a stick blade to get one Thursday.
“Our goaltender has to battle harder to get us space,” said Tippett. “Obviously, if they’re going to be allowed to stand in the paint, then we have to battle harder to push them out.
“Simple as that.”
While the Stars promise a better showing, the Red Wings figure they can up the ante, too.
“We know we’re going to be better,” said Babcock. “We were off a little while but we think we’ll be much quicker and harder to play against.
“That’s going to be our focus. They’ve got a really good team and we’re aware of that. (Game 2) will be a different game. We understand that totally.”