CHICAGO -- For one period, the Chicago Blackhawks looked like a team that hadn't played in nearly a week.
For the next two Wednesday night at United Center, they looked the club that blitzed teams en route to the top seed in the Western Conference and a place among the favorites to claim the Stanley Cup.
Jimmy Howard withstood wave after wave of pressure from the Blackhawks, but eventually even a great performance from the Detroit Red Wings' goaltender wasn't enough.
Johnny Oduya and Marcus Kruger scored a little more than three minutes apart midway through the third period and the Blackhawks defeated the Red Wings 4-1 in Game 1 of this Western Conference Semifinals series.
"I thought it was our best game of the playoffs, no question," Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp, who finished with a goal and two assists, said. "[Coach] Joel [Quenneville] can probably answer that better than I can. Personally, it was a tough start. Those first couple shifts the building was hot and the legs were a little stiff, but it was probably because we were for a week. I thought we played better as the game went on, and didn't have too many breakdowns out there."
Howard faced a flurry of shots after the Blackhawks looked a little rusty in the first period from the layoff after wrapping up their first-round series last Thursday. After just six shots on net in the first period, the Blackhawks peppered Howard with 27 in the next 28 minutes and eventually broke through.
The Red Wings struggled at times with the pressure from the speedy Anaheim Ducks, but the Blackhawks were at another level in the final two periods.
"I didn't think we were very quick in executing," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "We're not trying to take anything away from them. They were better than us. The score tonight was more than fair as far as I'm concerned. They were better."
Sharp and Patrick Kane controlled the puck in the left corner, and Sharp found Oduya pinching in from the left point. A couple of exhausted Red Wings forwards were unable to stay with him, and Oduya had plenty of space to pick out the top right corner behind Howard at 8:02 of the third period.
"It was at the end of a shift and it was kind of a long one. I was pretty tired there," Sharp said. "[Kane] cycled it down to me and before the puck even came to me I saw Johnny break through. I don't know what happened, if it was coverage or just a great play by Johnny to get open, but I just wanted to get it to him in his area and he made a great shot."
Kruger extended the lead at 11:23 of the period on a quirky play. The puck ended up on top of the goal netting behind Howard, and it was just out of his reach to try and cover it up. It ended up off the netting and out in front of the goal, and Kruger was able to backhand a shot past a lunging Howard for his second of the postseason.
Howard finished the night with 38 saves and was certainly Detroit's best player, but it wasn't enough for the Wings to steal Game 1 against the top-seeded Blackhawks. Corey Crawford made 20 saves, but defenseman Brent Seabrook had the save of the night, swatting the puck off his goal line late in the third to keep the lead at 3-1. Sharp added an empty-netter with 48.8 seconds left to end any doubt.
"I just think we've been doing it all season," Sharp said of the unrelenting pressure. "We've been playing the same way whether we're up a goal or down a goal, tied game, and we're not surprised with how well Jimmy is playing in net there. We're not surprised how hard it is to get to the net and get scoring chances. There's no reason to panic and no reason to change anything -- just keep playing.
"I don't think we panicked at all, and in the second intermission we just wanted to continue the way we were playing and hopefully we'd get a couple."
Marian Hossa put the Blackhawks in front with a power-play goal at 9:03 of the first period. Sharp (three points) knocked the puck away from a pair of Red Wings along the left wall, and Jonathan Toews was able to get it to a wide-open Hossa for a one-timer and his fourth of the playoffs.
The Red Wings' penalty killers got caught out of position by Sharp's play -- three of them were along the wall and a fourth was near the closest faceoff dot. The rest of the ice was wide open and Toews had multiple options.
"It's the type of game we like to play. The intensity was here tonight," Hossa said. "We felt like we had the fast game. We didn't hesitate with the puck and we put it in good areas. We have a good-skating team and we used that.
"We were much better skating than in the first five games [of the playoffs]. You need to be better against a team like. We really need to be sharp."
The Red Wings didn't take long to respond. Damien Brunner tied the contest at 10:57 with his third goal of the postseason. Brunner collected a cross-ice pass from Gustav Nyquist in the neutral zone and sped toward the net down the left wing.
Seabrook blocked his first attempt and Crawford thwarted the second, but Brunner stayed with it and chipped his third try over Crawford's outstretched arm as he went below the goal line.
""I think in the first it was pretty even, but then I think in the second and third they looked like they had a little more energy than we did," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "It's going to be nice to have a day off tomorrow and practice and then looking forward to Game 2."
Chicago advanced to the second round by dispatching the Minnesota Wild in five games. The Blackhawks needed overtime in Game 1 and lost in OT in Game 3, but they won the final two contests by a combined 8-1 margin and did not allow a power-play goal in the series.
Detroit rallied from a 3-2 series deficit to knock off the second-seeded Anaheim Ducks in seven games. The Red Wings won three times in overtime before controlling Game 7 from the start, and Zetterberg led the way with three goals and five points in the final two contests.
There will be two days off before Game 2 back here on Saturday afternoon. The Red Wings went back to Detroit after the game, will take Thursday off and then try to regroup.
"We never really put any pressure on them at all," Babcock said. "It was a grinding game from our end because we never got out of our zone. They were way quicker than us. They executed better. As time went on, we turned pucks over and made it easy on them.
"I just went through everybody and I think we were all the same -- I don't think we were very good. They skated better than us [on lines] one through four. It's not like we had one dominate and then three let us down or anything like that. We were all the same."