May 24, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Wings one win away from once-implausible feat

Detroit -- The Red Wings are taking it all on now, everything that possibly can be fired. This is being decided in the toughest areas of the ice, in front of the net, in their relentlessly grinding effort. And make no mistake about this — it's also being decided in the head.

Jimmy Howard is standing on his head, as the hockey parlance goes, and the Blackhawks gradually are losing theirs. The Red Wings pulled it off again, winning 2-0 on Thursday night at Joe Louis Arena, and are poised to pull off what seemed implausible. Howard was clutch and spectacular in net, as Detroit carries a 3-1 series lead to Chicago for Game 5 on Saturday night.

The Red Wings are chasing something they can see and sense, and I still think the Blackhawks aren't totally sure what hit them. Howard isn't swiping the series by himself, although he's coming close. He may be the main source of frustration for the Blackhawks but he isn't the only one. Henrik Zetterberg has twisted Jonathan Toews into mental knots, a shadow that can't be shaken.

The Red Wings aren't letting up, and if they do, Howard isn't letting anything beat them. By the time Dan Cleary slid the puck into an empty net with 38 seconds left to clinch it, the crowd was at a feverish high, and once again, anything seems possible. Jakub Kindl scored the other goal on a second-period power play, the result of another Toews' penalty.

The Blackhawks still are skating as if they mean it, and Howard is stuffing just about everything. He collected his second career playoff shutout by stopping 28 shots, none bigger than a sliding save on Dave Bolland midway through the third period.

"Howie played well, and we pay him to do that," Mike Babcock said. "I thought he made an unbelievable save on the two-on-one there. We're competing at a high, high level. We don't do things right all the time, that's for sure, but I think we're doing things hard all the time, trying hard."

It takes maximum effort to beat the top seed, and Detroit just won its third consecutive over a team that hadn't lost three straight all season. The series isn't over, and the once-heavily favored Blackhawks remain dangerous. They fired a few more shots off the posts and lamented their bad luck.

But, Zetterberg has become the equalizer and Howard has become the eraser.

"Howie gives us another set of confidence back there," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "He's just square, big, and he makes everything look easy. He's in a zone and we're happy with him staying there. I don't know if you can ask for more than what he's done. He's been the backbone of our team and he will be for many, many years."

Seeing red

The game unfolded as the previous two had, which was good news for the Red Wings, who were sticking to their plan of sticking it to the Blackhawks stars. Once again, Zetterberg was rattling Toews into blind rage not suitable for lip-readers at home. And once again, Howard was turning the white ice into his personal pallet, sprawling all over it, leaving Chicago smear spots behind.

This is how upstarts pull upsets, by being persistently aggravating. Zetterberg was relishing the role, doing whatever he could to knock the Blackhawks off their sweet-skating stride. The Red Wings were delivering from all angles, with Zetterberg out front and Howard standing tall in the back.

The Blackhawks again controlled the puck a majority of the time and got prime scoring chances, and Howard made it moot. The frustration was etched all over Toews' face, as he took three straight minor penalties in the second period. He vehemently argued a couple of the calls, as if he couldn't believe it was happening to him. It was happening because Zetterberg simply wouldn't stop.

"We're all frustrated, it's not about one guy," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp said. "Lots of posts, lots of big saves by Jimmy. There's no use hanging our heads about it."

True to his personality, Howard wasn't interesting in touting himself. He praised his teammates and adopted his pleased-but-not-content countenance.

"What can you say, guys are blocking shots and doing a great job of tying guys' sticks up, allowing me to see the puck," Howard said. "It gets me excited when I see that."

The Red Wings finally busted through the impenetrable Blackhawks penalty kill, and it was because Toews kept giving them chances. Chicago had killed off all 30 of its opponents' chances in the playoffs until Kindl fired his slapper with one second left on the power play. Midway through the second period, Detroit had a 1-0 lead, forged by composure more than anything.

On the brink

The Red Wings knew another desperate push was coming from the favorites, and they were prepared for it. Late in the second period, Justin Abdelkader tangled with agitator Bryan Bickell and both drew four minutes in penalties. Bickell still might have been loopy from an earlier crushing hit delivered by Jonathan Ericsson, which left him wobbling.

Everything was ratcheting, a constant swirl of skating and shots, with Howard calm in the middle. The Blackhawks dented him only twice in the previous two games, and surely Wings fans know this routine. You say you're not wildly frustrated, you say you like your chances, you say you'll keep shooting. But by definition, thievery sneaks up on you, and Howard was busily thieving.

The Blackhawks can't like — or believe — what they're seeing. The Wings are making them see double, using every body part at their disposal, most notably their heads.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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Joe Louis Arena manager Al Sobotka pumps up the crowd Thursday with the traditional twirling of the octopus. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
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