May 23, 2009 at 11:17 pm

Bob Wojnowski

All of a sudden, Wings in a test

Dan Cleary (11) gets a four-minute major on a high stick to Jonathan Toews in the first period, leading to a 2-0 Blackhawks lead. (Dale G. Young/The Detroit News)

Chicago -- The Red Wings thought they were ready for anything. But they weren't ready for all this.

A key injury. A key player ejected. Emotions ratcheting and whistles blowing and a noisy crowd pushing a pesky upstart. Danger arrived Friday night for the defending champs, who now find themselves smack in the middle of a testy series.

The Blackhawks busted out quickly, the Wings caught their breath and rallied terrifically, and what ensued was another breathtaking thriller. Patrick Sharp scored early in overtime to give Chicago a 4-3 victory and slice Detroit's lead in the Western Conference finals to 2-1, and in the process, officially declared this series a test for the Wings.

If I were trite, I'd say the Wings delivered a knockout blow -- a crunching hit by Niklas Kronwall that led to his controversial ejection -- but not the knockout blow. Trailing 3-0, they rebounded to tie it, but couldn't get the goal that would've given them a thoroughly insurmountable 3-0 series lead.

So now it's a test, an interesting one but an eminently beatable one. The way the Wings took over was impressive, although the Blackhawks didn't buckle, and Game 4 Sunday suddenly is huge.

"You will have injuries and other things during a playoff run, and we've dealt with it before and we'll deal with it again," a calm Henrik Zetterberg said. "We've got to come out better than we did at the start and stay out of the (penalty) box. But I thought (Kronwall's hit) was a good, clean hit."

Blackhawks find life

Much will be made of Kronwall's thundering check on Martin Havlat, which appeared to knock Havlat out cold. It drew a five-minute interference penalty and game misconduct for Kronwall. The NHL punishes hits to the head, but Havlat was playing the puck and looked down before getting clobbered. It was a huge hit but it didn't appear dirty, and the penalty was a harsh reaction to the knockout.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville thought the hit was illegal. The Wings' Mike Babcock disagreed, saying Kronwall "hit the guy fair and square."

Ah, the joy of biased playoff vision. The outcome was that the Wings' depth, down to five defensemen, was tested. It already was tested because Pavel Datsyuk was scratched with a sore foot. He hasn't skated hard for three days, and who knows how the injury responds.

The Wings' temperament also will be tested, because emotions and energy are roiling now. The Wings recovered but it wasn't enough, and now the Blackhawks have life.

"I thought we did a good job battling back," Nicklas Lidstrom said. "You gotta have a short memory when losing in the playoffs. It helps when you've been through it before."

The Wings knew they'd have to skate through noise and trouble immediately in this one, and boy, did they ever. From the boisterous national anthem -- when the fans literally stand and shriek nonstop -- to the array of early penalties, the Wings were smothered in the first period.

Noise, trouble grow

This was everything they feared, and everything the Blackhawks needed. Missing Datsyuk, the Wings looked scattered and passed sloppily. And everything they did became a penalty.

Some of it was warranted -- Dan Cleary's high stick on Jonathan Toews led to a four-minute power play and the game's first goal, on a sizzling slap shot by Brent Seabrook.

Some of it was unfortunate -- Kronwall's clobbering of Havlat looked bad, as Havlat lay motionless, seemingly knocked out with his eyes open. But oddly, Kronwall was called for interference (even though Havlat had the puck when hit) and a game misconduct.

Like I said, noise and trouble, and both grew. Up 2-0, the Blackhawks went back on the power play a mere seven seconds after Kronwall's penalty expired. That's one way to keep the Wings from threatening -- put 'em on the penalty kill for nearly half a period.

Early in the second period, the Blackhawks led 3-0 before the Wings gathered themselves. It was almost as if the defensemen figured they had to make up for Kronwall's absence and just kept firing, and in a 4:23 span, the game twisted. Nicklas Lidstrom scored on a slapper. Brian Rafalski scored on a slapper. Jonathan Ericsson scored on a slapper.

Slap, slap, slap -- the Wings were alive.

The Wings had guys like Tomas Holmstrom in front of Nikolai Khabibulin, but this was a crumbling of the ol' 'Bulin Wall, who left with an injury. Quenneville sent backup Cristobal Huet into the net for the third period, and what began as a festive night for the Blackhawks suddenly was something much different, a 3-3 tie headed to another tension-packed overtime.

The young, energetic Blackhawks ended the game as they began it, with a burst and a flurry, and just like that, this series is on. Just like that, fresh danger has arrived for the defending champs.

bob.wojnowski@detnews.com">bob.wojnowski@detnews.com

See Also
More Bob Wojnowski