The Lightning have little time to relish Wednesday’s Game Seven win over Detroit. On Friday, their Round Two series versus Montreal begins at the Bell Centre. Before that series starts, however, here’s a look back at the Round One triumph over the Red Wings.
In some respects, it was a hard series to figure out. The teams alternated wins and losses through the first six games – just when it seemed one team had grabbed control of the series, the other side counterpunched. In terms of which team carried play, however, it was less of a zigzag. In particular, the first five games. I’d describe those five contests not as a 1-1-1-1-1 (following the won/loss pattern) but as a 2-3. The Lightning controlled the first two and the Red Wings the next three.
The Lightning vowed they had learned from last year’s playoff sweep against Montreal. Their biggest issue in that series was that they weren’t able to match the Habs’ playoff intensity level. At the start of the Detroit series, they were ready to compete at a playoff level – and were the more dominant team in Games One and Two. The advantage was especially pronounced in Game One, a contest in which the Lightning outshot the Red Wings, 46-14. Detroit stole that game for a few reasons. First, Wings’ goalie Petr Mrazek was terrific in making 44 saves. Second, they netted a few timely goals. And third, while Detroit’s neutral zone play wasn’t remarkable (the Lightning entered the Detroit zone with ease all night long), the Wings defended well in front of Mrazek. They boxed out and prevented the Bolts from getting to rebounds. This was a trend that would continue for much of the series.
It didn’t continue in Game Two, however. The Lightning scored five goals – and three came on rebounds. Compared to Game One, the Red Wings were more competitive in terms of generating an attack, but they were not as crisp defensively. So overall, while it wasn’t as lopsided a performance for the Bolts, they were still the better team. They forced their way to rebounds, made key plays to capitalize on Detroit’s defensive miscues and, like the Wings in Game One, defended well without the puck.
After the first two games, the Detroit players stated that they felt they hadn’t yet played their best hockey. That changed once the venue shifted to Joe Louis Arena. For the next three games, the Red Wings played (nearly) perfect defensive hockey. Not only did they continue their Game One trend of protecting the front of the net, their neutral zone coverage effectively bottled up the Lightning. In the rare instance when there was a breakdown, Mrazek erased that mistake with a save. Excluding Game Four overtime, the Lightning were shut out in eight of nine periods during those three contests. Fortunately for the Lightning, they were able to break through in that one other period. That was the third period in Game Four – and the Bolts netted two late goals to tie the game before winning in overtime.
But even with that comeback victory, the Lightning trailed the series, 3-2, after five games. One factor in Detroit’s smothering defensive play was that the Red Wings had been playing with the lead. Consequently, they didn’t have to loosen their structure in an attempt to rally from a deficit.
So heading into Game Six, the Lightning knew they needed to change the narrative of how the previous three games had played out. Getting the lead would help – and it was important that the Bolts scored an early goal in Game Six. That wasn’t the whole story, though. Game Six was the Lightning’s best overall game in the series. They competed and battled for loose pucks and delivered a terrific defensive performance themselves. They were calm and poised with the puck, which helped them break down Detroit’s structure and make plays. Plays that yielded four goals off the rush. On the other side, Detroit wasn’t able to maintain the level of defensive excellence that had been on display for most of the prior three games.
So what would happen in Game Seven? Would the Lightning carry play as they did for much of Game Six? Or would the Red Wings regain their defensive groove and suffocate the Lightning attack? As I wrote in last night’s Extra Shift, Game Seven was unlike any of the previous six. Through two periods, the Red Wings played their most complete hockey in the series. Not only was Detroit solid in its defensive structure, the Red Wings were consistently dangerous offensively. For most of the first two periods, the Lightning weren’t able to replicate the poise they’d exhibited in Game Six. They did get some good looks, but they were isolated to a couple of power play chances and a few random shifts in which they possessed the puck in the offensive zone. But despite Detroit’s advantage in the opening 40 minutes, the Red Wings couldn’t solve Ben Bishop. Just as Mrazek bailed out his teammates in Game One, Bishop helped the Lightning by keeping the game scoreless after two periods. After the Lightning broke through with the game’s first goal nearly four minutes into the third, their game settled down. The Wings pressed, but other than a Zetterberg shot during a three-on-two, didn’t generate any scoring chances down the stretch. Ultimately, the series came down to one period – the Bolts won that final period and advanced to Round Two.
Before the series began, I know many “experts” picked the Lightning to beat the Red Wings. Detroit’s coach Mike Babcock quipped that he’d seen 13 predictions and not one had picked his club. But the Wings didn’t reach 100 points in the regular season for nothing. They showed how well they’re capable of playing in this series. In particular, their defensive play, for a healthy part of the series, was simply outstanding. Beating them was no easy task and no small feat.
As I wrote at the top, the Lightning players felt they’d gained valuable experience during their short postseason run last year. The learning curve continued in the Detroit series. The Bolts have now experienced coming from behind three times in a series to win. They’ve experienced winning an elimination game on the road. They’ve experienced getting past a solid, structured defensive team committed to taking away time and space. And finally, they’ve experienced playing in – and winning – a Game Seven.