The Tampa Bay Lightning had the best offense of any NHL team in the regular-season, but in Game 3 against the underdog Red Wings, they couldn’t get a single goal past Petr Mrazek – and are now down 2-1 in the series – thanks to a 3-0 defeat Tuesday. The Wings are regularly counted out by skeptics, but they keep on finding ways to win.
When THN staffers gathered last summer to make pre-season predictions for our Yearbook, one of the more spirited debates was focused on the potential of the Detroit Red Wings. Some editorial department members believed the Wings were fading, didn’t have adequate superstars to replace their cornerstone members, and didn’t deserve to be one of our choices as a playoff team. However, a few dissenters (present company included) on staff were wary of putting them behind a team such as the Florida Panthers, if only because, when you make the post-season 23 consecutive seasons, you should probably get the benefit of the doubt over a franchise infamous for mismanagement.
In any case, the larger group at THN decided to put Florida ahead of Detroit, and you know what happened next: the Wings weren’t perfect and ended the season on a skid, but still played well enough to make it into the playoffs for the 24th straight year. For that achievement, their reward in the first round was the young and skilled Tampa Bay Lightning – a team that had eight more regulation/overtime wins than the Wings and one that was the sexy pre-season pick for many (present company included) to win the Eastern Conference and play in the Stanley Cup Final – and once again, there were more than a few people prepared to write them off and predict a Bolts series victory.
We all should’ve known better. We should’ve known a Mike Babcock-coached and Ken Holland-managed team was never going to play patsy for anybody. And after Game 3 Tuesday at Joe Louis Arena ended in a 3-0 Detroit win and a 2-1 series lead for the lower-ranked team, nobody should be finalizing plans to see second-round hockey in Tampa Bay just yet.
To use a line made famous by the legendary wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, just when you think you’ve got all the answers for the Red Wings, they change the questions.
To wit: think they’re in trouble in goal? It sure looked that way as the regular season drew to a close and they finished just 4-4-2 in their final 10 games. Veteran starter Jimmy Howard – one of Detroit’s better players at the start of the season and one of the reasons they began the year so strongly – couldn’t consistently play well, and backup Petr Mrazek was also having trouble putting together long stretches of solid play. After their 82nd game, Babcock had to choose which one to go with, and thus far, he’s made the right choice: the 23-year-old Mrazek hasn’t been perfect and only played two periods of Game 2, but he won his first-ever NHL post-season game in Game 1 with a 44-save performance – and in Game 3, he posted his first playoff shutout by turning aside all 22 Lightning shots he faced.
And sure, the Wings probably will only go as far as captain Henrik Zetterberg and fellow star Pavel Datsyuk’s health will take them, but this isn’t a roster that has to have the duo dominating the scoresheet in order to win. Datsyuk scored the first of the night on a crafty redirected shot from Tomas Tatar and Zetterberg chipped in an assist on Detroit’s second goal, but five of their top six pointgetters so far in the series (Luke Glendening, Tatar, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm and Kyle Quincey) hardly are considered the cream of the NHL’s crop. They truly need everyone contributing something of value to have a shot at winning, and damned if Babcock doesn’t find a way to do that more often than not. What we saw from the Wings Tuesday is another reason why Babcock is going to set the bar for coaching salaries this summer. It’s not always pretty, but where some teams default toward collapses and disarray, Detroit’s organizational muscle memory is about winning.
To hold the NHL’s best regular-season offense to only 22 shots and no goals as the Wings did in Game 3 – while giving the Lightning six power plays – is a tremendous feat. In fact, only one team managed to shut out the Bolts during the 2014-15 campaign.
That team? You guessed it. The Detroit Red Wings, the Keith Richards of an NHL franchise: relentless, resilient, responsible for some classics, and capable of more at any moment.