DETROIT – The Red Wings got under the skin of Captain Serious.
Led by their captain, the Red Wings thoroughly frustrated the Chicago Blackhawks for the third straight game and now find themselves one win away from returning to the Western Conference finals for the first time in four years.
A Chicago lineup loaded with young talent takes its cues from Jonathan Toews, its ruthless captain for the last five seasons. However, the actions of their captain didn’t help matters for the Blackhawks on Thursday night.
Toews, who had 11 minor penalties during the regular season, took three minors in the second period along in Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena. His second penalty – a high-sticking infraction against Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader – led to the Wings’ first goal in a 2-0 Detroit victory.
Game 5 is Saturday night at the United Center where the Red Wings will try to close-out the series and return to the conference finals for the first time since 2009.
It’s evident that Toews has been frustrated all series long by Henrik Zetterberg, who has shadowed the ’Hawks’ center and consistently beat him in the faceoff circle.
“He’s really good at that,” said defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, of Zetterberg’s pestering skills. “We saw that early and in previous years too when he played against (Sidney) Crosby. So we know that he’s a pain in the ass for the other team and that’s the way we like him.”
Tied for the team goal-scoring lead during the regular season, Toews has been limited to just one assist in this series against the Red Wings. But after Thursday’s game, he wasn’t in the mood to deflect blame for his short-comings.
“I’m not going to say anything about the officiating,” Toews said. “Obviously I disagree with the calls but it’s in the heat of the moment. They see what they see. I’ve gotta be careful of my stick. That doesn’t help my team, but I still think we played hard through it, found a way to stay in the game, killed off two big penalties.”
In a span of 5 ½ minutes, Toews picked up three bad penalties. He first was for hooking Wings forward Drew Miller at 5:20, then high-sticking Abdelkader at 8:04, and he finished by high-sticking Ericsson at 10:54.
It was on the second Toews’ penalty that led to Jakub Kindl scoring his first career playoff goal, firing a blast from the top of the left circle that beat Chicago goalie Corey Crawford at 10:03 of the second.
The Red Wings finished the scoring on Daniel Cleary’s empty-net goal with 39-seconds left in regulation.
Kindl’s goal came with one-second left in Toews’ penalty, snapping the Blackhawks’ string of 30 straight penalty kills in the playoffs. They were the last team in the postseason to allow a power-play goal.
The Blackhawks have scored just two goals in the last three games, and the Red Wings can definitely sense the frustration emanating from the Chicago players, especially their 25-year-old leader.
“He had a few penalties today, but I don’t know,” said Ericsson, of Toews. “We’d like to keep him in the box. He’s not as good for them in the box.”
Something that’s certainly helped the Red Wings’ cause is that they have reacted to the Blackhawks’ tactics of trying to draw them into scuffles and skirmishes after the whistle.
“I'm sure that helps,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “Anytime you're up, it's a lot easier to take a slash or a cross-check than if you're down. I think that just comes with it.”
The Blackhawks also had four third-period minor penalties in Game 3, which prevented them from mounting any type of comeback in that game. Still, the way this series is shaking out, the Blackhawks – who came into the playoffs with the best record in hockey, claiming the Presidents’ Trophy and earning the No. 1 overall seed throughout the postseason – can’t be very thrilled.
HOWIE DOING: In the last three games, goalie Jimmy Howard has stopped 86 of 88 shots in leading the Red Wings to three consecutive wins, while the Blackhawks have now dropped three straight for the first time all year.
“Can't say enough about the guys in front of us,” Howard said. “We're doing a great job of getting above them, cutting them off, not letting them come with speed and also another huge thing is we're taking care of the puck. We're getting pucks out of our blue line and getting them deep. It's slowing them down a little bit.”
Howard made a pair of huge stops in the first period that kept the game scoreless, making close-range saves on Toews and then moments later Patrick Sharp.
“Just getting out to the top of the crease and establishing myself,” Howard said of the first-period saves. “My goalie coach, Jim Bedard, and I talk every day about getting to the top of the crease, being big, hands up and playing and having fun.”
Thursday’s win was the second postseason shutout of Howard’s career. The first came in Game 4 of the 2010 conference quarterfinals against the Phoenix Coyotes.
BAD BICKELL: The Blackhawks moved big-bodied Bryan Bickell up to the top line with Toews and Patrick Kane on Thursday. While the scheme seemed to work early on, it didn’t help the Blackhawks’ cause much after the first period.
“We know Bickell and what type of player he is,” Ericsson said. “He likes to go to the body and not focus on the puck as much. Sometimes you have to take a hit by a big guy like him to make a play, and a lot of guys did that today. We just have to be aware of who is out there. We just play our system regardless of who’s out there.”
Bickell finished with four hits, including three in the first period on Valtteri Filppula, Ericsson and Zetterberg. However, the Red Wings, led by Justin Abdelkader (five), Patrick Eaves, Drew Miller and Ericsson (each with four) out-hit the ’Hawks, 30-22, in Game 4.
FIRST-TIMER: Kindl scored his first career postseason goal Thursday night. The defenseman’s blast from the top of the left circle came with one-second left in Toews’ second minor penalty of the second period.
Kindl’s goal, which grazed the left post and went in, snapped the Blackhawks’ streak of 30 straight successful penalty kills in the playoffs. Chicago is the last team to allow a power play goal this postseason.
“There aren’t a lot of times when you can take the shot through,” Kindl said. “I’m just trying to establish every time I get the puck, I’m trying to shoot, create the rebounds in front of the net and make things happen. There’s not a lot of time, maybe a half a second, and I just have to shoot, find that hole and hopefully there’s someone there for get the rebound or deflect it in.”
NO YOU DON’T: Chicago center Dave Bolland had a great chance to net the game-tying goal with 10:35 to go in the third period, but Howard made a splendid save, sealing off the bottom of the net while doing the splits. Howard was just as lucky as he was good when on the ensuing faceoff, Michal Handzus won the draw and slip through the defense before lifting a backhand shot that beat Howard to his blocker side. But the puck struck the left post.
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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