Anaheim, Calif. -- It took a while, but when the Red Wings finally had a chance to take this series, they seized it with force, in feisty and familiar ways. They skated through time zones and danger zones, regenerating before our eyes, again lining up behind their captain.
The Wings rolled into Anaheim and knocked off the second-seeded Ducks 3-2 Sunday night in Game 7 to advance to the second round, where the Blackhawks await. Redemption doesn't work as a strategy, but for personal motivation, it can work brilliantly.
The Wings did it with Henrik Zetterberg further cementing his icon status in his first year as captain. They did it with Justin Abdelkader, suspended earlier and relentless now, scoring on a steal-and-breakaway. They did it with Valtteri Filppula, who hadn't played well and knew it, so he did something about it.
Filppula fired the first shot and the biggest shot, and when the Wings get guys like him going, they still can inflict damage. Chicago will be the heavy favorite but I imagine the Blackhawks also will beware, because the Wings' stars are shining and the young guys are growing.
Keeping their cool
Ask the Ducks, who were staggered early and never fully recovered. Zetterberg scored less than two minutes into the game, shoveling in a rebound off a Filppula shot, and the huge red-clad contingent in the California crowd made the Wings feel at home.
"We came in here last game and they lit us up at the start," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "We talked a lot about it, get rid of your nerves in warm-ups and let's get after them. We really felt as the series went on, we were getting better. We felt advantage us, the longer we could make the series go."
The Wings' young forwards and defensemen are getting better, just in time for a much-bigger challenge. But at least they know against Chicago, they have more possibilities than even two weeks ago.
Babcock smartly split up Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in this game to avoid the Ducks' defensive matchup. The boost worked, and Zetterberg fed all sorts of energy (and pucks). Late in the second period, he sent a nifty pass under his own skate that was tipped by Dan Cleary to Filppula in front of goalie Jonas Hiller. Filppula made no mistake, lifting in a back-hander for a 3-1 lead, and the Wings were rewarded for dominant and disciplined play.
Turns out, the Ducks were more flappable than the Wings, who were happy but exhausted afterward. Jimmy Howard was solid and occasionally terrific, and ultimately outplayed Hiller. Who knew that in a tight, taut series, the Wings would be the ones rattling the opponent into mistakes?
It seemed like Babcock knew, talking with supreme confidence earlier in the day. He suggested the Wings were in a "perfect situation" and even said he knew Filppula — who made a glaring turnover in the last game — would play well. Of course, he also knew he'd be putting him alongside Zetterberg.
"We just wanted to switch it up a little bit on the road, with them having the last matchup," Zetterberg said. "We said we were gonna do it at least the first 10 minutes, but we kept doing it the whole time. We wanted to be the team that skated more in the beginning, and we found a way to do that."
This series was destined for a Game 7. For two weeks, the teams chased each other across the ice and across the country, as if trying to catch a greased puck. Four games went to overtime. Control changed constantly and no lead was safe.
Zetterberg leads way
But as it went on, the pressure had to build on the favored Ducks, and the confidence rose for the young Wings. So it wasn't a shock when they went for the early knockout, skating as if their blades were on fire. And the one firing quickest was Filppula, who hadn't scored in the series but rebounded nicely.
Naturally, it was sparked by Zetterberg. He was tremendous all series but now is scoring — three goals in two games — and leading with incredible passion. Even during a turbulent shortened season, even with numerous fresh faces, the Wings still can exude a relative calm. Maybe it's easier to be serene when you have Zetterberg and Datsyuk on your side.
After the morning practice Sunday, Zetterberg was chatting while watching golf on the dressing-room TV, and said he'd have no trouble getting his afternoon nap. Nap early, wake up on time.
"We've been in this situation many times this year," Zetterberg said. "I told the guys, Game 7 is a little different, but in reality, it's kind of like a Game 6. Just enjoy the atmosphere."
That's what players always say, but really, I think these Wings have enjoyed their rare upstart status. The Ducks' stars, especially Corey Perry, were the ones squeezing their sticks against a No. 7 seed they were supposed to beat.
The series was wonderfully competitive and hotly contested, but it wasn't necessarily artfully played. Plenty of goals came after mistakes, and nobody was immune. The Wings missed several prime chances, and when the Ducks' Emerson Etem skated through the defense and ripped a shot past Howard's short side, the game was tied.
One play, one bounce could change everything, at any moment. And late in the first period, in the midst of an Anaheim power play, Abdelkader made a superb play to steal the puck and race in on a breakaway. He buried the shot like a top-liner should, and the Wings were back on top 2-1, eager to finish it off.
It never comes easily, and the Wings sweated to the end. They couldn't wait to get started in Game 7, then couldn't wait to finish it. And the way they pulled it out, with some of the old and some of the new, it makes you think they have a few tricks left.