ANAHEIM -- This was to be a rebuilding year in Detroit, some pundits said. Nicklas Lidstrom was gone, and the Red Wings were going to rely on young players more than they had in years.
Well, Detroit is still home to two of the best players in the world, and for the second straight time as the Detroit Red Wings faced elimination in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, it was captain Henrik Zetterberg who made sure it didn't happen.
Zetterberg scored the opening goal and assisted on another, while goalie Jimmy Howard made 31 saves as the Red Wings defeated the Anaheim Ducks 3-2 at Honda Center in Game 7 of the series Sunday night.
"We wanted to have a good start. Then we just kept kind of playing," Zetterberg said. "There were a few moments where they took over and we were on our heels, but overall I think except for if they hadn't got that power-play advantage -- I think I made it way more interesting than it should be."
The seventh-seeded Red Wings, who needed at least a point in the final game of the regular season just to qualify for the postseason, will now move on to face the rival Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Semifinals.
The start of that series has yet to be determined.
"It is going to be a fun one," Zetterberg said. "First of all, it is going to be a lot shorter travel, so that is going to be nice for us. They had our number in the regular season. It is a great team. They are stacked forwards, they are stacked on the back line and they have a good goalie, so it is going to be a tough series for us, but it is going to be a fun one."
Zetterberg put the Red Wings in front 1:49 into the opening period. Valtteri Filppula, who had just two points in six games before Sunday, put a shot on net from the top of the right faceoff circle that Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller couldn't control. Zetterberg pounced on the rebound.
Detroit's captain didn't score in the first five games of this series, but he struck twice in Game 6 and added his third early in Game 7. Zetterberg normally plays next to Pavel Datsyuk and Justin Abdelkader on the team's top line, but coach Mike Babcock put him with Filppula and Daniel Cleary to start this contest.
"I thought I should have last time in here and I didn't," Babcock said. "I kind of knew that's what we were going to do. I had met with the guys and told them we were going to do it until the 10-minute mark and around that time just to get you through the first bit and then get them back together, but I liked what was going so much I just kept them on it."
Detroit had seven of the first eight shots on net, but Anaheim stabilized and eventually tied it up, thanks to one of the breakout stars of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Emerson Etem tried to dump the puck into the right corner, but defenseman Carlo Carlaiacovo deflected it toward the middle of the Wings' zone.
Etem collected it, skated toward the left faceoff circle and past sliding defenseman Jakub Kindl before snapping a shot past Howard at 13:48 of the first. It was Etem's third goal of the series.
While Etem's play was a theme in this series, so was slow starts by the Ducks. It was particularly troubling because it was something that occurred with some frequency during the regular season as well.
"I can't comprehend to answer that question, or I would have fixed it a month and a half ago," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said when asked about the slow starts. "You do everything you can. You talk about it. We've got a team psychologist asking all the players about it. We've done, I think, we've challenged them about self-motivation at the start. It seemed like we weren't ready to go until somebody put us in a hole an awful lot of games. When you're in a seventh game in the playoffs, that's a hard hole to climb yourself out of -- always playing from behind."
Added Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf: "We've said all year that we can't keep putting ourselves behind the eight-ball. Game 7 is a prime example of that. It's tough. Everybody's diving in front of pucks [and stopping them] with the teeth if they have to. It's just a tough way to go."
Detroit went back in front at 16:37 of the opening period. Anaheim was working on its second straight power play, but defenseman Francois Beauchemin collected a drop pass at the right point and tried to turn and send the puck to his partner Sheldon Souray at the left point.
Beauchemin clearly didn't see Abdelkader jump into the passing lane, and the Wings forward knocked the puck down, blew past the two defensemen and beat Hiller along the ice for a breakaway shorthanded tally.
"I was on the bench thinking, 'Let's just get out of this period 1-1,' " Boudreau said. "I thought we'd be good then. The shorthanded goal came about 20 seconds later. It was a real goal that hurt. Them starting out so good and taking it to us for the first seven minutes and then us coming back and starting to take the game away a little bit, and then you get the goal scored and it calmed them down and sort of rattled us, I think."
Filppula's struggles were a topic for Babcock after the morning skate Sunday, and the Finnish center's success in Game 7s was brought to the coach's attention. There was a bit of mix-up -- Filppula had four assists in his career in Game 7s, not four goals -- but he scored his first of the series to push Detroit's lead to 3-1.
Zetterberg won a faceoff in the left circle of the Anaheim zone, then won a puck battle in the right corner before sending a backhanded pass toward the right circle. Cleary helped it along to Filppula, who backhanded a shot past Hiller at 13:45 of an excellent period for the road club.
Detroit continued to frustrate the Ducks for much of the third period, but Zetterberg went to the penalty box for delay of game and Anaheim quickly cut the two-goal deficit in half. Beauchemin threw the puck towards the net and it glanced off Jonathan Ericsson's skate and into the net with 3:17 remaining. Twice before in this series, the Ducks had erased multi-goal deficits in the third period.
"That's not the norm, like giving up three minutes in a matter of minutes," Red Wings defenseman Kyle Quincey said. "That's not normal. I think tonight was more normal. They came with a good power-play push and got a greasy goal, and I think we just did a good job keeping them to the outside. We didn't panic tonight, which is good to see. Hopefully we can build off that."
The Red Wings forced a Game 7 with its third overtime win of the series in Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena. Anaheim had won Games 1 and 5 here, along with a convincing 4-0 win at The Joe in Game 3 -- the only game in the series that wasn't a one-goal contest into the final minute of regulation among the first six.
These teams faced each other in a Game 7 the last time they met in the playoffs. Cleary scored with 3:00 to play in the third period on a goal Hiller still Sunday morning said he didn't think should have counted to give the Wings the win at Joe Louis Arena in 2009.
For the Red Wings, even their "rebuilding years" end up with success, which is another testament of the strength of one of the model franchises in professional sports. This is the 22nd straight season in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for Detroit, and the Wings have now reached at least the second round in six of the past seven years.
For the Ducks, it will be remembered as a missed opportunity in a return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. Young players like Etem, Kyle Palmieri and Nick Bonino showed there is more promise to come in Anheim, but there will be questions asked of the big stars who didn't meet expectations, and ones about the future of Teemu Selanne, who hasn't committed to playing another year in what has been a transcendent career.
"There's no explanation [for the slow starts]," Selanne said. "That's pretty much our problem all year. If we could fix that one problem, this would be a total different case … we have to learn something from this. I think we deserve better than this, but that's hockey. The playoffs are so much fun, and very disappointing to be out right now in the first round. We were looking forward to go further and enjoy this more, but that's why it's so tough right now. But it's too late now."