May 24, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Red Wings have Hawks on ropes, and on brink of elimination

Wings players on Game 4 win
Wings players on Game 4 win: Zetterberg, Kindl and Howard look to close out the series on Saturday.

Detroit — After the rope-a-dope, you get the standing eight count.

And there it was, in a manner of speaking — one, two, three … — as the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg grabbed hold of the hockey stick of his captain counterpart, Chicago's Jonathan Toews, and simply refused to let go.

Even after the whistle blew and a referee skated in to separate the two players. Not until he'd gotten a reaction out of Toews did Zetterberg finally release his grip, while Toews yelled at the ref and took a whack at No. 40's shin pads.

This was early in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena. But it could've been any of the last three games, really, as Detroit has taken hold of this series, at least in part by getting into the head of Chicago's unquestioned leader.

And isn't that the way you win a battle like this? Kill the head and the body will die, right?

Well, the top-seeded Blackhawks aren't dead yet. But they're fading fast, and Thursday night it was their captain who sure looked as if he'd cracked.

Toews, a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate in the regular season, had 11 minor penalties in 47 games before the playoffs. He had two in Chicago's first eight playoff games. But he had three in a 5.5-minute span in the second period of Game 4 — a natural hat trick of playoff recklessness that might've doomed his team's Stanley Cup hopes.

Down 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, they're headed home for an elimination game Saturday night at the United Center, hoping to force another 48 hours later back here in Detroit. And that forced them to start spouting some of those old, familiar clichés following Thursday's 2-0 loss.

"We've got to find a way to dig in," forward Patrick Sharp said.

Dig in, dig out. Whatever. They've got to find a way to salvage something after Toews helped bury them with his play Thursday night.

"I'm not going to say anything about the officiating," Toews said. "Obviously, I disagree with the calls, but it's in the heat of the moment. They see what they see. I've gotta be careful of my stick. That doesn't help my team, but I still think we played hard through it, found a way to stay in the game."

'Emotions run high'

Actually, it was Zetterberg who got sent off first, called for hooking Toews early in the second period of a scoreless game. But then a few seconds after the Wings had killed off that penalty, Toews followed Zetterberg's lead, skating off as the crowd jeered.

And if Toews was upset about that hooking call — a pretty innocent-looking tug on Drew Miller — he was absolutely livid when he got called for high-sticking Justin Abdelkader at the end of the 44-second shift he started by exiting the penalty box. Battling for the puck along the boards in the Wings' zone, Toews tried to lift Abdelkader's stick. But in the process he snapped it and his follow-through caught Abdelkader in the chin.

The Blackhawks didn't allow a power-play goal in their first eight playoff games this spring. And they nearly made it through a ninth, but Jakub Kindl's head's-up shot off the inside of the post, past a screened Corey Crawford — Abdelkader provided the cover — made it 1-0 with :01 remaining on Toews' penalty.

The Blackhawks' captain was still cursing his fate as he skated out. But he might as well have left his stick in the penalty box, because he was headed back there soon enough. A mere 51 seconds later — again, at the end of his next shift — Toews got caught up in an overheated puck battle and got caught with his stick up in the face of Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson. So off he went again to sit and stew.

"Emotions run high in some of these games, and my stick got a little loose there," Toews said. "I was playing hard. Sometimes that happens."

'All over him out there'

What has yet to happen in these playoffs, however, is Toews scoring a goal, though he's got plenty of company lately in his dressing room. After scoring 48 points in 47 games in the regular season, he has just three assists in nine playoff games. And though he'd vowed after Game 3, "I'm not going to let it get the best of me," it sure looked like something was getting the best of him in the second period Thursday. He created some scoring chances again, but, well …

"We'd like to keep him in the box," Ericsson joked. "He's not as good for them in the box."

He's not as good when he's being shadowed by a player like Zetterberg, either, and that has been the Wings' gameplan all series.

"Z's doing a great job on Toews," said goaltender Jimmy Howard, who's doing a terrific job himself, obviously. "He's all over him out there. … And when Z's working as hard as he is, it really sends a message to the rest of the team that they better do their part."

Joel Quenneville tried to do his part Thursday, juggling his forward lines and catching the Wings a bit by surprise when he threw Bryan Bickell over the boards for the second shift of the game, followed by Toews and Patrick Kane. But that was about the only shift where the Wings didn't get the matchup they wanted up front.

As a result, Toews was sounding a bit bewildered after the game, even as he insisted otherwise.

"Eventually, something's got to give," he said. "We're too good a team. We've got too much talent. For as hard as we're working, something's got to go our way."

Maybe it will. But they're running out of time and answers in this series, just as Toews has run out of time and space.

Red Wings forward Cory Emmerton tries to get the puck past Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford in the first period Thursday at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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