May 22, 2013 at 6:12 pm

John Niyo

Red Wings are winning mind game with Blackhawks

Bryan Bickell, left, was livid at Daniel Cleary by the end of Game 3 over his perceived mistreatment. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)

Detroit — There are so many questions that still need answering at this point it's hard to know where to start. Or where and when this'll all finish for Detroit and Chicago in their last wild West showdown.

For instance, will the Red Wings ever convert on the power play? Will Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews ever shake loose for a goal? And which was the more egregious blown call on a bad night for the referees Monday at Joe Louis Arena: Niklas Hjalmarsson boarding Johan Franzen to set up Patrick Kane on the rush or the goaltender interference on Andrew Shaw that disallowed Viktor Stalberg's tying goal? (Upon further review, it's clearly the latter.)

But there's more. Why did it take until mid-March for Gustav Nyquist to become a regular in the Red Wings lineup? What would it take for Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville to consider making a change in goal? And would Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman ever consider making a change behind the bench, seeing as how Detroit seems to be Coach Q's kryptonite? (I'm joking there, obviously. But … Hey, Dad, you busy?)

Still more. If Jimmy Howard's worth $5 million-plus annually — and that deal's starting to make some sense to you now, right? — how much are those goalposts behind him making? (Hopefully more than Patrick Kane's barber, at least.) Oh, and hey — hey! — Hockeytown, you realize the octopi are supposed to fly before the puck drops, right? Not when the Blackhawks need a breather with the goaltender pulled in the final minutes? (Just a little friendly advice to the home crowd.)

But mostly, I keep coming back to this: Why'd the Red Wings and Blackhawks wait till now to get reacquainted like this, just when it's about time to go their separate ways?

These two Original Six teams have met 802 times as opponents since joining the NHL on the same day in May a mere 87 years ago. They've been in the same division since 1981, and spent years brawling each other during the regular season, particularly in the knuckle-dragging, late 1980s. But the Stanley Cup playoff clashes have been too few — six times since 1970 before this one — and far between to generate the kind of animosity that made Detroit-Colorado and, more recently, Chicago-Vancouver such good theater.

Losing it

Monday night, though? That was worth the price of admission, whatever it was. And here's hoping both teams treat their fans to another week of it as a going-away present, what with Detroit headed to the Eastern Conference next season.

An exhausted Howard called the 3-1 victory at Joe Louis Arena "probably the fastest playoff game I've ever been a part of" — hard to argue that from my vantage point — and then quickly added, "I expect it to get faster Thursday night."

The two off-days between games all but ensure that — with fresh legs and presumably fresh ice — even if the longer cooling-off period allows the Blackhawks more time to regain their composure.

Because by the end of Game 3, the Red Wings were understandably having a hard time stifling their laughter. Andrew Shaw skated off the ice cursing anyone and everyone after another penalty — his third of the night — and Bryan Bickell had that Travis Bickle look in his eyes as he tried desperately to goad Daniel Cleary into a fight.

"Yeah," Cleary chuckled in an on-ice interview with NBC Sports moments later. "I don't think we'll be exchanging Christmas cards anytime soon."

The Red Wings might consider sending referee Brad Watson a thank-you note after he waved off Stalberg's would-be tying goal like it was 1999. (After all, "You do want to be on their good side," noted Jonathan Ericsson, who has yet to set foot in the penalty box this postseason.)

But maybe they should thank Quenneville, whose teams do have a way of losing their heads in Detroit come playoff time. And they definitely should thank their veteran leaders, who long ago learned the virtues of turning the other cheek.

Only now the Red Wings do it with a little less flash and a little more bang, which only riles up the opponent more when it's done right.

"We couldn't seem to get a call," Stalberg said after Game 3, when the Red Wings forecheck was really good and their good fortune even better, perhaps. "In every scrum, they were picking our guys off the ice. It was frustrating, that aspect, but we've got to fight through that adversity."

In their heads

Tuesday, Stalberg's teammates were back home in Chicago refuting any talk of being frustrated. Who, us?

"It was more just showing that we are there and we are going to be there and we are going to be fighting," defenseman Michal Rozsival said.

Quenneville, 7-22 against Detroit in the playoffs, shrugged and said, "Do what you gotta do," when asked about his team trying to send a message at the end of Game 3. But watching them do what they did the last two games, it's hard not to see what Ericsson saw. He suggested the Blackhawks' last-minute meltdown on a muggy night in downtown Detroit "absolutely" was "a good indication" the Red Wings were in the Blackhawks' heads, giving them much more than a puncher's chance as underdogs in this series.

"If we can get them frustrated, that's almost 1-0 for us right away," Ericsson said. "So that's what we want to do."

You don't always get what you want in hockey. But the team that manages to rise above is the one that typically gets ahead — and finishes there — in the playoffs. Right now, that's where the Red Wings think they're headed.

"But I think this series is a long way from over," Toews said, as determined as ever despite his own personal scoring drought. "And they know that, too."

Frankly, I hope they're both right.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo