Brett Hull broke out of a series-long slump with his first career playoff hat trick as the Red Wings finished off the Vancouver Canucks with a 6-4 victory in Game Six of the best-of-seven conference quarterfinals.
Hull and defenseman Chris Chelios, who tied a team record with four assists, were the heroes of the clincher. But the series turned in Game Three, when Cloutier was beaten from center ice by defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom in the final seconds of the second period. That goal broke a 1-1 tie and propelled top-seeded Detroit to four straight wins after it had dropped the first two games in its own rink.
"I think we got some breaks in Game Three and Game Four We got the breaks when we needed them and on the Lidstrom goal," Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman said. "That's an unlucky break for a young goalie and it kind of helped us. I've seen it happen before and it's happened to us, too."
Cloutier never recovered from his gaffe, surrendering 10 goals on just 33 shots after he was beaten by Lidstrom. He was replaced by Peter Skudra in each of the last two games.
"For myself, obviously, I need to play better," Cloutier said. "I played great for three games and the last three, I was pretty average. I'm pretty happy with the year I had. I proved a lot of people wrong and I believed in myself. But I have to be better in the playoffs and I've learned my lesson."
The Red Wings advanced to the second round for the seventh time in eight years and will face St. Louis or Los Angeles.
"Anytime you have an opportunity to eliminate a team, you have to do it because it's such a momentum builder for them if they can survive a game with their backs against the wall," Detroit left wing Brendan Shanahan said. "The momentum changes and it's dangerous."
It was the third straight first-round loss for Vancouver, which was the NHL's hottest team down the stretch but has won just one of eight home playoff games since moving into GM Place.
"It's frustrating, a little disheartening," Canucks coach Marc Crawford said. "I really thought that this year we would have some playoff success. But our team obviously has some lessons to learn, and we were taught them by a pretty good team. There's no shame in losing to them, but it doesn't make it any easier."
But the turning point came during a Vancouver power play in the second period. With Red Wings defenseman Steve Duchesne in the penalty box for cross-checking, Kris Draper took down Jovanovski at the Canucks' blue line but was not penalized. Draper continued to the net and made contact with Cloutier during a scramble, leaving the goalie helpless to stop Lidstrom's blast from the top of the left circle.
Hull scored another shorthanded goal 30 seconds later to make it 4-2, breaking in alone on Skudra, freezing him with a deke before scoring from a tight angle.
"The first goal he scored, I was amazed how he got to the goal," Bowman said. "That's a goal-scorer. You could put 10 guys out there and maybe a couple would put it in."
"That basically is the game," Hull said of the quick burst. "That got our momentum going and you don't see that very often, especially in the way they control the puck."
Blanked over the first five games of the series, Hull padded the lead with 2:21 to go in the period. From the outer edge of the left faceoff circle, he wristed a shot that appeared to deflect off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Scott Lachance and soared over the right shoulder of a crouching Skudra.
Sedin scored again 6:55 into the third period, seven minutes before Hull finished off the hat trick with a patented one-timer from the edge of the right circle.
"There's nothing more fun than scoring," said Hull, who moved into a tie for fourth place on the all-time list with 93 playoff goals. "Well, there's a couple of things, but they're not involved in hockey."
Crawford pulled Skudra for an extra attacker with three minutes remaining and climbed within 6-4 on Matt Cooke's third goal of the series, a rebound of Jovanovski's shot from the blue line.
"We battled hard and lost to a team that was better than us," Vancouver center Andrew Cassels said. "They've put together one of the best teams that's ever played the game, a lot of future Hall of Famers and All-Stars, and they know how to win."
Dominik Hasek made 25 saves and moved a step closer to his elusive first Stanley Cup championship.
"I need to play better than that," he said. "I let in four goals, and that can't happen if we want to win. They are a great team, they made it hard for me every game. I'm very glad that this is over."
"Dominik gave us the motivation we needed and he came up with the big saves when we needed them," Bowman added.