The best player on the ice in Tampa Saturday was a 5-foot-8 forward who couldn’t be stopped.
The Bolts’ Tyler Johnson channeled Martin St-Louis of old, firing in the first goal of the afternoon and putting the game out of reach with a breakaway tally at the end of the second to make it 4-0. The Wings swapped out Petr Mrazek for Jimmy Howard and tried to mount a comeback in the third, but the Lightning held on to win 5-1.
The win evens the series and throws the Red Wings’ goaltending position back into doubt, after Mrazek surrendered four goals on 18 shots in the first two periods.
Mike Babcock turned to Jimmy Howard for the third, but the return of the Wings' regular starter wasn’t enough to trigger a comeback. Tomas Tatar beat Ben Bishop with a deflection through a screen to make it 4-1, then Vatlteri Filppula put a stake through the heart of his old team by scoring off the rush to finish it at 5-1.
Johnson was the best player on a poised and confident Bolts team that controlled the puck through most of the game. Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle brought a physical element the Red Wings couldn’t match, and Johnson drove much of the play in Tampa’s winning effort.
Johnson's playoff success should come as no surprise. He had 16 goals and 35 points in 32 playoff games for the Lightning's AHL affiliates. He was the only point-per-game player on the 2012 Calder Cup-winning Norfolk Admirals, and he trailed only teammate Ondrej Palat in scoring when they led the Syracuse Crunch to the Calder final in 2013.
Johnson's been through the AHL playoff wars, and he knows how to elevate his game under the pressure of the post-season.
The Lightning did a lot of little things right, winning puck battles, forcing turnovers and controlling the pace.
Detroit, on the other hand, seemed to be playing catch-up all afternoon. They couldn’t sustain any zone pressure and failed to capitalize on four power plays, while surrendering goals in two of four shorthanded situations.
You knew it wasn't Detroit's day when Pavel Datsyuk stumbled of his own accord on the power play in the second, turning over the puck and letting the Bolts relieve the pressure in their end.
In short, it wasn’t Mrazek’s fault alone the Wings lost. They simply didn’t have the puck long enough to match Tampa on the score sheet.
Now, Mike Babcock finds himself in the unenviable position of having to pick a starter for Game 3. Mrazek is a young goalie with higher highs and lower lows, while Howard is steadier but less spectacular.
Babcock will need to make the right choice as the series shifts back to Detroit, because Tampa was the highest-scoring team in the league in the regular season. They might overwhelm Howard, or they might catch Mrazek on a bad night and shell him again.
The situation is complicated even further by the possibility Babcock could leave Detroit this summer. If he's in it for the long-term, he has to worry about upsetting Howard, who is signed for three more seasons at a $6 million cap hit. If that long-term relationship no longer matters, Babcock could simply go with who he thinks will get him the win.
Howard is probably the safer option, but if he gets lit up, the Detroit goaltending situation could get ugly in a hurry.