DETROIT – Mike Babcock's cliché description of the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday morning proved to be an adequate description later that night.
"Tiger by the tail," Babcock said. "They play fast, and they've got some skill up front. Their back end is young, but they've got some good skill. They’re going to be a test."
It took less than three minutes to figure that out on Saturday night at Joe Louis Arena. The tiger got free and sunk its teeth into the Red Wings for a pair of early goals in a 4-3 Colorado victory at Joe Louis Arena that saw the Avs hang on at the end to ward off a Detroit rally in the third.
Colorado (32-27-4) also downed the Columbus Blue Jackets on the road Friday night and swept a back-to-back weekend to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"We knew this win was going to be tough," said recently-acquired Avs forward Steve Downie, who scored what proved to be the game-winning goal 9:13 into the third and added assists on both goals by rookie Gabriel Landeskog. "It's hard to win in this League on back-to-backs, especially in this building, but we came out hard and withstood their pressure. We knew they were going to come out [hard] in the third. They're a great home team, but we got through it."
They actually did more than just get through it. Colorado also became the first team since Calgary on Nov.3 to beat the Red Wings (41-19-3) in regulation on this sheet of ice. The Wings' NHL-record 23-game home winning streak ended Thursday with a 4-3 shootout loss to Vancouver; this was the first time in 24 games that the Wings went home empty-handed.
"I didn't know that," said Landeskog, who scored one of his goals in the first three minutes of the game and added a second at 13:35 of the second for a 3-0 lead. "Good for us, I guess. They're such a good team. We're just happy to come in here and get two points like we wanted to do. It if took [overtime] or a shootout, it wouldn't have mattered."
That's because the Avs are basically in playoff mode already, hovering around the West's final playoff position with a handful of teams. This victory was their third straight and makes this stretch the first time they've strung more than two wins together since the turn of the New Year.
Meanwhile, acquiring Downie from Tampa Bay on Tuesday in a three-team deal that sent defenseman Kyle Quincey to Detroit paid early dividends in this game. Downie, in just his third game for Colorado, is meshing well at right wing on a line with center Ryan O'Reilly and Landeskog on the left.
O'Reilly had three assists to Landeskog's two goals and Downie's three-point night to stand out as the most dominant trio for either team.
"[Downie] adds grit and skill to our lineup, which is exactly what we thought we were getting when we acquired him," Colorado coach Joe Sacco said. "He plays the game with an edge, but as you saw out there tonight he can play the game. That line already in the short time they've been together ... I like what I've seen so far."
David Jones also scored for the Avs, his third goal and fourth point in the two weekend triumphs. That was the second of Colorado's two quick tallies to start the game and came off a turnover in Detroit's own end of the rink during a Red Wings power play. Quincey had his legs taken out by Chuck Kobasew after the Avs forward slipped and fell, and the puck went straight to Jones – who wheeled to the front of the net and ripped a wrist shot into the top right corner of the net past Jimmy Howard (23 saves).
Howard had to be sharp just to keep his team in the game for a third straight start – all one-goal defeats – since returning from a broken finger that kept him out for eight games. He made several big stops following Jones' goal to keep it 2-0 at the end of the first, then made several more in the second before Landeskog smoked another snap shot past him to make it 3-0 with 6:25 left in the period.
It was almost all Red Wings in the third, after Babcock shook up his top three lines and watched his players respond. Jiri Hudler scored a pair of goals in the third – including one on a power play just 44 seconds into the period – while Valtteri Filppula added a third with 5:07 left to play to make it 4-3 Colorado. Henrik Zetterberg, centering the two goal-scorers, assisted on all three for a three-point night.
Detroit continued pressing to tie it, but just couldn't find the tying goal.
Quincey had a rough game, finding himself on the ice for the first three Colorado goals in his first game against his former teammates – but Babcock was most concerned about the entire team effort through the first 40 minutes.
"It's unacceptable to play like that, to be as poor as we were tonight," he said. "We had a rally in the third period, but for two games – and probably for three – we haven't had much energy. You can't win like this. We got to be better, play harder. It wasn't good enough."
Did the long home winning streak, especially the final effort to break the previous record of 20, take something out of the Red Wings?
"I don't buy any of that," Babcock said. "You have high points throughout the year and sometimes you're not as energized. I understand that, but you don't accept that. You got to be mentally tough and push through it and we haven't been able to do that."