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Red Wings in danger of losing opening series again

Detroit trails Lightning 2-0, could miss second round for fourth time in five years

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TAMPA -- When the Detroit Red Wings go home, they will find a huge octopus figure sitting on a ledge by the Gordie Howe Entrance at Joe Louis Arena. They will find "25" painted in enormous numbers at center ice, celebrating their streak of 25 straight appearances in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

This is what the locals call "April in the D," the time of year in Detroit when the weather starts to warm, the Tigers open baseball season and the Red Wings play hockey in the postseason. Without fail. Well, actually one of those things does fail sometimes: the weather.

But after a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday, the Red Wings also find themselves in a 2-0 hole in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series, and will find fans worrying that once again they won't have hockey in May.

Video: Johnson's four-point night powers Lightning in Game 2

The Red Wings can't stop the Lightning line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn, who have combined for 15 points (seven goals, eight assists). They keep turning over the puck. Their scorers can't score.

And if they don't come back and win this series, they will lose in the first round for the fourth time in five years. In the eyes of many, fairly or unfairly, they will have blown another opportunity to advance, considering the Lightning are without captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and defenseman Anton Stralman (fractured fibula).

Asked after Game 2 what was most disappointing, Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who usually talks about the process, said, "The result. I'd say the result. More than anything else, the result."

No team has produced better results than the Red Wings over the past quarter century. They have won the Stanley Cup four times and came within a game of winning it a fifth. Their 25-season playoff streak isn't the NHL record, but it is the longest active streak by far and the most impressive in history under the circumstances.

No player in the NHL today was in the League the last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs. Nine of the franchises in the NHL today weren't in the League the last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs. The streak is six years older than Red Wings rookie forward Dylan Larkin.

It began long before the salary cap, and it has continued despite the cap and the fact the Red Wings' success has kept them from selecting early in the NHL Draft. No other team has made the playoffs every season since the cap arrived in 2005-06.

That's incredible. It should not be taken for granted. Yet it is too often in Detroit. The Red Wings have become a victim of their own success, measured not against the other teams in the League but against their own high standard.

When you have won the Cup multiple times, making the playoffs is not enough. It isn't enough for the Red Wings either.

"We've been exiting too early in my eyes the last couple years," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said before Game 1.

The Red Wings haven't made it past the second round since 2009, when they went to Game 7 of the Cup Final.

Two recent playoff losses particularly hurt:

In 2013, they had a 3-1 series lead against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Second Round. They had a third-period lead in Game 6. They went to overtime of Game 7. And they lost the series and watched the Blackhawks go on to win the Cup.

Last year, the Red Wings had a 2-0 lead in Game 4 with a chance to take a 3-1 series lead against the Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round. But they lost Game 4 in overtime, and they lost Game 7 despite playing well, and they watched the Lightning go on to make the Final.

"We have to take care of business," Zetterberg said. "We have to be better if we want to go on a run."

They have not been better in the first two games of this series.

The Red Wings have made too many mistakes. It is one thing for Larkin, 19, making his NHL playoff debut, to step up when he should have stayed back on a play in Game 1, watching the Lightning chip the puck off the boards past him and score on a 3-on-2. But turnovers by veterans Darren Helm and Jonathan Ericsson led to the winning goals in the first two games, and those are just the biggest examples.

Video: DET@TBL, Gm2: Johnson puts Lightning ahead in the 3rd

"They're getting too many easy goals," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "They're a good team. No doubt. But we have to be better."

The Red Wings haven't capitalized on enough of their opportunities either. Zetterberg has no goals in 13 games, one in 26. Pavel Datsyuk has no goals in 12 games. Gustav Nyquist has one in 19. Tomas Tatar has one in 12.

Blashill reunited Datsyuk and Zetterberg on a line in Game 1, looking for a spark. He tinkered with his lines in Game 2, trying different right wings with his two veteran leaders. Blashill is already getting second-guessed for not playing speedy rookie Andreas Athanasiou more and for sending Anthony Mantha back to the minors, even though each is inexperienced and might have made even more mistakes.

If the Red Wings lose this series, the second-guessing is going to get worse. The Lightning have an excuse playing without Stamkos and Stralman. The Red Wings have no excuse and a city used to success.

It's about the result. More than anything else, the result.

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