DETROIT — White knuckles around these parts are beginning to regain color.
The Red Wings, who took a demanding path into the playoffs, and then another one to the second round, will breeze into the Windy City this weekend with a cushion they have not enjoyed in some time.
Tension building amid weeks of close calls simmered to a slight boil Thursday in a 2-0 blanking of Chicago. Thanks to a masterful performance by its goalie, the awakening of its power play, and another ineffective showing by the opposing captain, Detroit now leads 3-1 in the best-of-seven series. If worse comes to worst, the Wings have assured themselves of extending this series to the limit with the top-seeded Blackhawks.
Best case scenario: The Wings wrap this up on the road Saturday and advance to the Western Conference finals. That scenario was impossible to foresee a month ago when Detroit entered the final day of the regular season needing to secure a point to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. Likewise, the opening series with Anaheim, riddled with four overtime games, inspired little security.
Now, at last, comes the absence of a tight rope to negotiate. The ice Detroit will be skating on these coming days is no longer thin.
"If you would have asked me two months ago I would have been shocked," Wings coach Mike Babcock said.
Jimmy Howard is the biggest reason for the increased confidence. The Wings’ $31 million goalie pitched his second career shutout, stopping 28 shots. Howard, who signed a six-year extension last month, has stopped 124 of 129 attempts this series, a .961 save percentage.
Howard’s finest moment came early in the third period facing a 2-on-1 and the Wings up 1-0. Michal Rozsival received a crisp pass and fired from the left dot, only to watch his team’s most promising attempt careen off Howard’s right thigh.
"They got behind the D a few times, and Howie was real solid for us and gave us an opportunity to win," Babcock said, adding later "Howie played well and we pay him to do that. But I thought our team played fine."
Detroit got on the board on a Jakub Kindl strike during a second-period power play, and later on Daniel Cleary’s empty-netter with 38 seconds to go.
Chicago captain Jonathan Toews continued his forgettable series, finishing without a goal for the fourth time. In the second period Towes could not stay on the ice long enough to break free from his slumber. He was penalized three times in the first 11 minutes — for hooking, and twice for high sticking — and might as well have taken up a timeshare in the penalty box.
"The first two you could argue about," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "He didn’t get a chance."
It was Toews’ second visit to the box that proved most costly, with the Wings taking advantage for the first time this series in 14 power play chances. Another first — defenseman Kindl’s first postseason goal — ended a scoreless game 10 minutes, 3 seconds into the period and put the Wings in front 1-0. With one second left in the 5-on-4 threat, Kindl fired from near the left dot, beating first a sliding defender and then Corey Crawford’s stick. Credited with assists were Carlo Colaiacovo and Johan Franzen.
The Wings are now 1 of 15 in power play tries, the kind of stuff that somewhat belies their comfortable position in the series. Toews and Chicago are not as fortunate, as their struggles appear to be latched to the other. The league’s No. 5 scorer in the regular season with 23 goals has yet to light the lamp in nine postseason games.
"We don’t measure his contribution just offensively," Quenneville said.
NOTES: An announced attendance of 20,066 represented Detroit’s 100th straight sellout. ... Detroit’s Brendan Smith left in the first period after taking a puck to the knee but returned. ... Scratches for the Wings included Mikael Samuelsson and Todd Bertuzzi. The right wingers have appeared intermittently in the postseason. ... Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh got a Zamboni ride before the third period. ... Chicago holds a 40-38 edge in postseason contests waged between these rivals.