May 27, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Wings bracing for Game 6: End it now, or else

Valtteri Filppula, left, and the Red Wings look to close out the series against the Blackhawks on Monday night at Joe Louis Arena. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

Detroit -- Sometimes you get what you expect, even in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where we've all been taught in recent years to expect the unexpected.

So if you're the slightest bit surprised the Red Wings are back home for a Game 6 in the Western Conference semifinals tonight, after whiffing on their first series-clinching attempt Saturday in Chicago, then Daniel Cleary has a message for you.

"Whoever thought this was going to end in five games," he said, "is crazy."

Of course, that was easy to say — the only thing to say, really — after a 4-1 loss Saturday at the United Center. But if they're still talking about this being a long, grinding series against the Blackhawks late tonight — with furrowed brows and through clenched teeth — the Wings are setting themselves up for a stunning end to their season.

"We have to come out in desperation, just like a Game 7," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said after a team meeting Sunday at Joe Louis Arena. "Just to make sure that we do everything we can and really to be true to ourselves and give ourselves an honest chance."

Cornered 'Hawks

Honestly, that's something they didn't do Saturday, when the top-seeded Blackhawks — having lost three consecutive games for the first time all season — "were much more competitive than us, much quicker than us, and way more desperate," according to Wings coach Mike Babcock.

It started early, with the Wings appearing "tentative" and "tight," to use their own words, and it unraveled in the second period when they added "careless" to the list, among other playoff no-nos.

By Sunday, though, that was the good news, at least from Babcock's perspective.

"It's way harder on your psyche when you play well and you get thrashed," he said. "I mean, we weren't very good. Period. We skated better than we did in (a 4-1 loss in) Game 1. But it was a lot like Game 1: They were good and we were watching."

Better watch out, though. If it happens again tonight — even for a brief stretch — against a Chicago team that finally regained its focus when pushed to the brink, the Wings will find themselves skating on thin ice.

Lower-seeded teams are 27-1 all-time in this round of the Stanley Cup playoffs when grabbing a 3-1 series lead. And the Wings have won the last 11 playoff series in which they've gone up 3-1, a streak that goes back all the way to 1991 — the first of their 22 consecutive postseason berths.

So history suggests they've still got this one locked up, even after Saturday night's clunker in Chicago. In fact, in those 11 previous 3-1 scenarios, the Wings were under .500 (5-6) in Game 5, with all sorts of forgettable flops — a 6-0 shutout loss to Patrick Roy in Colorado in 1997, Jamie Langenbrunner's 70-foot OT softie on Chris Osgood in '98, even the triple-OT loss to Pittsburgh in the '08 Cup Finals. But they were 6-0 in the Game 6s that followed, never allowing a series to get to a winner-take-all seventh game.

Match game

Point is, this series shift is nothing new. Except it is for some of the Wings who are relatively new to all this playoff pressure.

"It is a learning experience," Babcock said. "Anyone who has been in the league a long time knows how hard it is to close a team out. And anyone who hasn't probably is a little surprised."

And not surprisingly, some of the playoff rookies played like it Saturday.

"Well, they weren't very good last night," Babcock said, though he wasn't fond of the way some of his veterans played, either.

"They've been good through the playoffs. Now is that (inexperience) part of it? Hindsight's great. It's a real good thing. Prior did I expect that? No. Did we all want the puck all the time? No. Why?"

Well, the coach left that last one unanswered, finishing instead with, "Let's get it fixed."

But the solution has to come from within this current group, obviously. Babcock actually seemed startled — understandably so — when asked if he had any plans to change his lineup after Saturday's loss.

"You mean put different people in?" he asked. "No chance."

He also didn't appear to be all that interested in juggling his forward lines, though he did put Datsyuk and Zetterberg together again in the third period Saturday with the Wings trying to rally from a two-goal deficit.

"We did that last night and it was no good," Babcock said, though he also admitted that might've been "because the game was over and we were not playing."

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville spent most of the past week in search of better matchups for his team, shuffling his lines more than once and eventually his defensemen, too. And he finally found something worked Saturday, putting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane together on the top line with Patrick Sharp and getting Toews away from Henrik Zetterberg's line as well as the Wings' top blueline pairing of Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson as much as possible.

Tonight, though, the Wings will have the last-change advantage, and it'll be interesting to see how Quenneville reacts to that.

Does he keep Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook together? Does he split up Toews and Kane? As Zetterberg said, "Sometimes you can coach a little bit too much, match a little bit too much."

Maybe so. Because if you don't match the other team's intensity — especially in situations like these — it doesn't really matter who's on the ice. It certainly didn't Saturday night.

"We played like it was the last game of our season," Seabrook said. "We got two more like that."

I expect the Wings feel differently about that, though.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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