There weren’t many teams that had legitimate goaltending questions heading into the post-season. Of those that did, however, were the Red Wings, but before the first-round series between Detroit and Tampa Bay, Mike Babcock named Petr Mrazek his starter. Five games later, the choice couldn’t look much more genius.
Through the first three games of the series, Mrazek allowed six goals and had completely shut down the powerful Lightning offense in Game 3, posting a 22-save shutout in the Red Wings’ first home game of the post-season. In Game 4, for almost the entire outing, it was much of the same. However, following a few defensive breakdowns after Mrazek had shut the door for nearly the entirety of the contest, Tampa Bay found the back of the net three times in quick succession and shockingly stole an overtime win.
In Game 5, though, the 23-year-old Czech netminder posted a 28-save clean sheet, his second in five games, and almost single-handedly pushed the Red Wings to a 3-2 series lead.
Over the course of the regular season, there wasn’t much separating the Mrazek from fellow Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard, but Howard’s play down the stretch was the difference maker. Heading into the playoffs, Howard’s numbers had slipped and his confidence looked shaken from consecutive poor performances. Now that Mrazek has gotten his chance to take the net over, it doesn’t appear he’ll relinquish it any time soon.
Because of Mrazek’s play, especially in games 3 and 5, Detroit now holds a 3-2 advantage in the series and stands a chance at an opening round upset that few saw coming or would have expected. The catalyst on ice may be Mrazek, but, as it seems to be season-in and season-out, Babcock has pulled all the right strings at all the right times to put Detroit over the edge.
Entering the series, the Lightning’s stars outnumbered the Red Wings’. They had the decided edge in goal scoring, in depth and, many believed, in goal. But Babcock has managed to get the most out of his depth players like Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and, over the course of the season and into these playoffs, especially Justin Abdelkader.
Now with their backs against the wall in a must-win scenario where line matching will be made all the more difficult thanks to playing an away game for Game 6, Tampa Bay needs to worry about more than the Pavel Datsyuks and Henrik Zetterbergs of the Red Wings and more about how Detroit’s depth players – scorers like Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist – can hurt them in the first elimination game of the series.
Detroit has come this far in the first round because of the players that have stepped up and because Babcock is pushing the right buttons when it matters. If they close out Tampa Bay in six games, it will be just as much an upset by the Detroit Red Wings as it is yet another example of impeccable coaching by Mike Babcock.