In my opinion, there were a couple of factors that lead to the Ducks defeating the Red Wings. Goaltending really wasn't the issue with our elimination as far as I'm concerned. It's very easy to point to the goalie position when you're team loses. So, I don't blame the criticism as misguided as it may be.
But I have a different take. Outside of the Wings inability to capitalize on their power player chances (especially the multiple 5 on 3's), I believe there was something else that the Anaheim Ducks did better than Detroit and to me, it's been overlooked and rarely been talked about. I believe this tactic factored in greatly with this series and ultimately helped Anaheim advance:The Ducks did a much better job of punishing opposing players in front of their own net.
Any time a Red Wing player came near that net, or JS Giguere, he paid a price. Beyond the usual punishment Holmstrom paid for parking his rear in the face of Jiggy, our guys got hammered, leveled, thrown to the ice, pushed outside, tied up or taken down--whatever it took. Even after the whistle, they made sure to make a statement: you come near our goalie or our net, you will pay a price.
Credit the Ducks--they were dominant in front of Giguere. Filppula wasn't even in on the scoring play but when he skated next to Giguere awaiting the puck, he was absolutley flatened. Give credit to the Ducks for something else--they didn't take a lot of penalties punishing the Wings. They were smart, but tough, brutally tough down low. I was impressed.
When Giguere gave up rebounds (which he did often) our guys couldn't get a second shot off, or at least a decent shot because they were paying a hefty phsyical price by trying to create traffic. The Anaheim defense converged immediately and physically moved or tied up the Red Wing players that crashed the net.
Three out of the four goals scored on us in Game 6 highlighted Detroit's ineffectiveness of doing the very same thing the Ducks were doing to them. Hasek made the original save, which is what you ask of your goalie. Rebounds dropped straight down, as opposed to carelessly being kicked out into traffic. The opportunity was there. We simply did not clear the traffic or make the Ducks pay a price for crashing the net.
Granted, we aren't the biggest team, but you don't need to hammer guys necessarily to neutralize them. Some players can do that because of their size and strength.. But, with our slightly smaller, less physical defense out there, we still had opportunites to tie them up, box them out and to use solid body positioning to neutralize the threat out front. We simply failed to do this most of the whole series.
There is no doubt that we definitely missed Schneider, more specifically, Kronwall in this series. This is one area where they could have helped. That doesn't mean they were the lone answers to the problem. Our defensemen--Lilja, Lebda, Chelios, Markov, Quincey--could have done a better job of neutralizing the Ducks forwards who had ample time and space to dig out pucks and tap them into the net. Perhaps the fatigue was starting to set in and our defensemen were conserving their energy. Missing two of your top four defensemen will bump every defensemen's minutes up and force them to go through more energy. Whatever the reason for it, we failed to neutralize the traffic--physically or with positioning--in front of Hasek.
In the playoffs, you simply cannot allow a team as talented as the Ducks to feel "comfortable" in front of your crease. I bet you Detroit didn't feel as comfortable when they tried to go after the rebounds and garbage Jiggy left out front. The Red Wings forwards knew they were going to take a beating. The Ducks forwards knew they could put up a tent, fire up a BBQ grill and lounge around the crease without fear of taking a beating at all.
How comfortable do you think Hasek felt when he made the saves, but had two, three, four guys standing around him digging, prodding, hacking, wacking at the puck? I can gaurantee you that Giguere felt comfortable knowing that, if he makes the intial save and gives up a rebound or can't find the puck, that his defensemen and, even some forwards, were going to protect that net and establish dominence out front. They were sent out there with a mission: punish and neutralize the Red Wing forwards if they crash the crease.
Nick Lidstrom is an amazing defensemen, the best in the league yet again. However, he cannot do it all. Nick is a smart player who plays a positional game over a physical game. He's not going to punish forwards parking in front of Dom. It's not his style. Instead, while we still have a brilliant Hall of Fame defenseman on our team, let's supply him and our goalie with another defenseman who will establish a physical presence out front. This team needs to go after a big, strong, SMART defenseman who will move and clear the traffic in front of our goalie. Give Nick some size and toughness in our own zone. I think it's fair to Lidstrom and our goalie next year to go after a defenseman who will take some of that pressure off our defensive corp; a defenseman who will make our goalie feel comfortable that he has someone who can protect the front of the net without taking a ton of penalties.
If we don't go and get a defensemen like this, then I expect our coaching staff to work with our current defensemen on improving this aspect of their game. Only one of our defenseman is under 6 feet tall. So, we have some size. It's playing physical or positionally out front that we need to work on. It's clearing the traffic. It's establishing dominance. It's making forwards pay a price. Our guys can do better at this aspect of the game.
Two seasons ago, one of the Wings most promising big, young defenseman-Jiri Fischer--collapsed on the bench and nearly died. Fischer was a big guy, a battler. He was strong and difficult to move off the puck. He made sure that players weren't too comfortable in or around our crease. Fischer was definitely missed this year, and in this series. We have another big defenseman in Grand Rapids--Jonathan Ericsson--who will be a Red Wing in a few seasons. His game is not quite as physical as Fischer's yet. So we do have players waiting in the Wings. Until they make their appearance in the red and white, the Red Wings could use another defensman like Jiri Fischer.
Bringing in a big, strong, smart defensemen via free agency or trade, who's not afraid to bring a physical presence to the front of our net is important. I think this may be a piece of the puzzle that was missing from this years run. Granted, the loss of Schneider and Kronwall was huge. But, since Fischer went down, I think this is a component the Wings have been missing.
Next season, I would like the opposing forwards to feel uncomfortable in front of the Detroit net, instead of the goalie standing in it.