May 16, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Jimmy Howard can't bail out Red Wings in opener

Chicago -- Jimmy Howard really wanted to face the Blackhawks. No, really, he did.

I'm just not sure he wanted to see this much of them this quickly, as the NHL's best team turned the United Center into a shooting gallery Wednesday night, and in doing so turned Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals into a rout.

The end result was a 4-1 victory for the Blackhawks, as well as a jeering crowd of 21,494 serenading the Red Wings goaltender as things started to unravel late in the third period.

But this one was hardly Howard's fault. For nearly 50 minutes, he was about the only reason the Red Wings still had a chance to steal an early series lead, or at least force overtime.

"And he had to be," coach Mike Babcock groused afterward. "We weren't good enough in front of him. We gave up too many opportunities, and then made some key mistakes down the stretch, obviously."

Now, whether that was the result of tired legs, with the Red Wings racking up frequent-flier miles in a grueling seven-game series against the Ducks in the first round, or whether it's simply a case of the Blackhawks having a decided edge in talent remains to be seen.

"We did a lot of traveling last series, back and forth," Babcock said. "I saw us yesterday in practice and I wasn't surprised when I saw us today. I didn't think we were very quick."

And after an evenly-played opening period — if the Red Wings grew tired late, the Blackhawks certainly looked a bit rusty after a five-day layoff — Babcock's worst fears were quickly realized. Earlier in the day, he'd talked about Chicago's impressive depth and their talented blue line and reminded everyone the best defense this time of year typically involves at least a little offense.

"If we don't get into that group, it's gonna be a track meet up and down the ice," he said. "We don't need a track meet. We need a grind-fest."

Nightly grind

That sound you heard Wednesday night might not have been a starter's pistol. But as grind-fests go, this one was a bit one-sided. As Babcock sarcastically noted, "It was a grinding game on our end, because we never got it out of our zone."

Joel Quenneville's team, which didn't lose a game in the first half of the regular season, spent most of the last 40 minutes Wednesday night in the Red Wings end, exposing a shaky defense and firing at will on Howard, who faced six shots in the first period but presumably lost count after that. Because the Blackhawks outshot the Red Wings by a whopping 36-14 margin over the final two periods, beating the visitors to seemingly every loose puck and often taking it back when they didn't.

"If we turn the pucks over, if we don't get through the neutral zone," Babcock had fretted before the game, "it's gonna be a long series for our team."

Or a short one, actually.

Because the Red Wings can't expect Howard to keep flashing the glove on Marian Hossa's one-timer or making toe saves on Dave Bolland breakaways. And if they're going to let Patrick Sharp — the NHL's leading playoff goal scorer — uncork seven shots every night, they might as well start making tee times for next weekend.

The Red Wings didn't register their first shot on goal until 9:30 had elapsed Wednesday, though Henrik Zetterberg did ring one off the post, and by then they were already trailing 1-0 on Hossa's power-play goal.

And though Damien Brunner did tie it, pumping in his own rebound a couple minutes later, the Wings didn't get nearly enough from their wingers.

Heavy workload

Johan Franzen was as docile as Hossa was dangerous in Game 1, Valtteri Filppula had another shot-less night, and Daniel Cleary probably blew the coverage on Chicago's decisive third goal.

Babcock was forced to flinch first in the matchup game, too, reuniting Datsyuk and Zetterberg as linemates to start the third period.

But by then, the game was already on tilt, and there was no shaking the Wings out of it.

"They just turned the game completely around on us," Howard said, sounding just a tiny bit exasperated. "It felt like instead of trying to get something going, we were standing around and watching a lot."

Everyone but Howard, that is. He was plenty busy Wednesday night.

Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Michal Handzus watches a goal by teammate Johnny Oduya (not pictured) fly past Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Ericsson. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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