TAMPA – For the third time in the past four years, the Detroit Red Wings are making an early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Red Wings appeared to be the stronger team for much of their Eastern Conference First Round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Game 7 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday wasn't much different: The Red Wings outshot the Lightning 31-17 and dominated the puck while playing 5-on-5.
But the Lightning scored twice in the third period and Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop was perfect, and that was all the Lightning needed in a 2-0 win that moved them into the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Red Wings went home with another frustrating series loss.
"I thought we played real well," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "They went to church and we must have missed Mass. The puck didn't go in for us and went in for them. In Game 7 if you win, you win and it doesn't matter how it happened, you move on."
Babcock mentioned that the Red Wings weren't picked to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs and they finished the regular season with 100 points. He also said that most experts picked them to lose the series to Tampa Bay; instead, Detroit held a 3-2 series lead with a chance to advance by winning Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena on Monday. However, a 5-2 loss put the Red Wings into a winner-take-all situation on the road against the team with the best home record during the regular season.
"We had good opportunities, it's disappointing for our group for sure," Babcock said. "In Game 4, they came back and won. I thought we played well in Game 7. We had the puck a lot tonight, and give Ben Bishop credit. We gave ourselves opportunities to score and we didn't score. When you wake up tomorrow and you look at the score, they won 2-0 and they are moving on."
Despite playing Game 7 on the road, the Red Wings could not have executed their game plan much better. They kept the puck in the Lightning zone for long stretches and generated scoring chances. But Bishop was there each time.
"We didn't give them much for the whole 60 minutes," Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said. "I didn't really see the [game-winning] goal [by Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn], but it looked like a lucky shot – a missed shot … it bounced their way and they won the game. I think we were better."
Captain Henrik Zetterberg said Game 7 might have been Detroit's best performance in the series. Although the Red Wings were without starting defensemen Niklas Kronwall (suspension) and Marek Zidlicky (undisclosed injury), they limited the Lighting to 33 shot attempts.
"[Jakub] Kindl and [Alexey] Marchenko played really good," Zetterberg said of the two young defensemen who stepped in for Kronwall and Zidlicky. "Kindl comes in and is probably our best defenseman [Wednesday]."
Zetterberg took some blame for the Red Wings' failure to move on. He did not score a goal in seven games and finished the series minus-4.
"Unfortunately we couldn't get it done, and I look to myself and I couldn't produce the way I wanted to this postseason," Zetterberg said. "No goals, and with the amount of minutes I played I should have been able to score more goals."
The Red Wings have several questions to answer as they head into the summer. There is plenty of young talent with forwards Riley Sheahan, Tomas Jurco and Luke Glendening along with defensemen like Marchenko and Danny DeKeyser. But three key players are getting older. Pavel Datsyuk is 36; Zetterberg and Kronwall are 34.
"We've got lots of good young players and ideally we've got some good ones coming," Babcock said. "But who's going to replace [Datsyuk]? I don't think he's going anywhere right away, but you have to have big-time players up the middle and on the back to be successful. We are a team that is adding a lot of youth to our lineup, but on the outside they don't pick us as a Stanley Cup contender."