TAMPA, Fla. – Two games stand out as probable reasons the Red Wings’ plans to meet the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs were thwarted – Game 4 and Game 7.
The Red Wings had a great opportunity to put the Tampa Bay Lightning on the ropes in Game 4 at Joe Louis Arena. But a two-goal lead and a sure 3-1 series lead slipped through their fingers when the Lightning stormed back with a 3-2 overtime win and returned home for Game 5 with the series tied at 2-2.
Wednesday was similar in that the Wings dominated much of the Game 7 tempo, but again, they failed to capitalize on chances, especially in the second period when Darren Helm setup Tomas Tatar twice, but to no avail.
In the end, Ben Bishop, who was outplayed by his goaltending counterpart through much of the seven games, saved his best effort for last. Bishop made 31 saves and Braydon Coburn scored his only goal of the series, lifting the Lightning over the Red Wings, 2-0, at Amalie Arena.
“There’s two times you look at it, is it Game 4 they won there?” coach Mike Babcock said, rhetorically. “Even tonight, we had good opportunities and didn’t score. Some of our good opportunities, Tats and Helmer in particular, two of them didn’t get a shot. Give Bishop credit for being big, but they didn’t get a shot on those. In saying that, our team played well, we played real hard. They dominated Game 1 and our goalie had to be good. We had the puck a lot tonight, to say the least.”
The Wings had plenty of chances to crack open the scoring in the first 40 minutes, but the game headed to the second intermission without a shot getting behind Bishop or Red Wings rookie Petr Mrazek.
Mrazek was either spectacular in the series or not so good, giving up five goals in Game 2 and four in Game 6. But he was back on top of his game in Game 7.
“Outstanding,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “Gave us a chance to win every night and did the same thing here today. (Mrazek) made some key saves and he didn’t have a lot of shots but those are the tough ones for a goalie when you don’t really have a lot of shots against you but when you get them, it’s a dangerous one, but he was good.”
One of three Wings making his NHL playoff debut in this series – defenseman Alexey Marchenko and forward Landon Ferraro were the others – Mrazek finished with a 2.11 goals-against average, a .925 save percentage and a league-high two shutouts.
“It was a great opportunity,” Mrazek said. “I think it’s going to help me in the future. A great experience. I’m looking forward to next season right now.”
As if Game 7 on the road wasn’t daunting enough, the Red Wings were dealt major adversity when defensemen Niklas Kronwall and Marek Zidlicky were sidelined by hits from Game 6. Kronwall was suspended for his hit on Nikita Kucherov, while Brenden Morrow’s questionable hit to the head of Zidlicky kept him out of the series finale.
Fortunately, Marchenko and veteran Jakub Kindl played admirably while stepping into a tough situation with the team’s playoff lives in the balance.
“I think both Kindl and Marchenko played really good,” Zetterberg said. “Kindl comes in and probably is our best defenseman here tonight. Makes a lot of good plays, plays a lot of minutes, it’s impressive to see when you’ve been out of the lineup for a long time.”
Coburn’s goal proved to be the only goal the Lightning needed. The 6-foot-5 defenseman snapped a shot from the top of the right circle that fooled Mrazek, beating the goalie over the right shoulder at 3:58 of the final period.
The scoring play was set up by Alex Killorn, who out-battled Kyle Quincey for the puck behind the Wings’ net. The Lightning center made a pass to Ryan Callahan near the left half wall. Callahan then spotted Coburn pinching in on a line change and used Danny DeKeyser as a screen.
“I didn’t see the puck coming,” Mrazek said. “DK tried to block it. I think the guy faked it a little bit. I didn’t see it and it went through me. I knew he was going to shoot a one-timer there. I lost it when DK went down. It was a nice shot. He hit that very well.”
The team that scored first won six of seven games in this series.
“I thought we sure had them swirling to give ourselves every opportunity and we didn’t score,” Babcock said. “Any way you look at it, that’s what the game is, you gotta score. When you wake up tomorrow, they’re moving on and they won two-nothing, you don’t bother going back and digging into how the game was played. It’s disappointing for our group, for sure. We thought we did a lot of good things. Coming in, no one picked us to win the series. If you watch Game 7 here today and you watch this series, sure didn’t look like it was lopsided.”
Detroit had its best third-period scoring chance of the third period when Zetterberg raced into the slot, took a feed from Gustav Nyquist and fired a shot, but Bishop made a fine save moving to his right.
The Lightning thought they had taken a two-goal lead later in the period, but referee Kevin Pollock waved off a would-be goal by Anton Stralman when he called coincidental minors for interference on Steven Stamkos and Riley Sheahan at 12:47.
The waved-off goal was reminiscent of the Wings’ Game 7 loss at Chicago two years ago. In that game, Brent Seabrook's overtime goal mitigated a potential controversy after what looked like the go-ahead goal by defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson with 1:49 left in regulation was negated by roughing minors away from the play on Quincey and Chicago's Brandon Saad.
With 1:30 left in regulation the Wings pulled Mrazek for an extra attacker, but Stralman added a nail by scoring an empty-net goal at 18:42.
“I think we fought hard, one of our best games I think today but we couldn’t find a way to get the puck in today and they scored in the third there,” Zetterberg said. “I think before that, we had a lot of good chances.”
CAPTAIN SHUT OUT: For the first time in his career, Zetterberg was held without a goal in a playoff series. The seven-game drought equals his longest postseason scoring skid that crossed over the 2012 and 2013 playoffs.
“I look to myself, couldn’t really produce this postseason, no goals,” said Zetterberg, who finished with three assists and was a minus-4 in the series. “The amount of minutes I play I should be able to score more goals than I did.”
BABCOCK’S FUTURE: It didn’t take but a few minutes for a reporter to ask Babcock where he’ll be coaching next season. The 52-year-old coach, who just finished his 10th season behind the Wings’ bench, essentially becomes a free agent and there’s little doubt that he’ll have plenty of offers from around the league.
“Well I’m not talking about that now, we’ll talk about tonight’s game,” Babcock said. “I think we’ll have a team meeting and final press conference. I’ll be happy to talk about any of that crap then.”
Asked if he’d like to see his coach return to Detroit, defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said, “That’s not my call. I can say he’s a really good coach so I’m sure a lot of teams want him. He’s been doing a really good job for us so far so why not.”
WINGS NOTES: Wings general manager Ken Holland said that Marchenko is the only player who will return to Grand Rapids to play with the Griffins in the American Hockey League playoffs. The Griffins trail the Toronto Marlies 2-1 in their best-of-five first-round series. Game 4 is Saturday at Van Andel Arena. Mrazek and Tomas Jurco are eligible to go down, however, Mrazek will shut it down for the summer while Jurco is likely headed to the World Championships in the Czech Republic. … Ferraro will not return to GR. He would have to clear waivers and the Red Wings are not willing to expose him. … The only time previously that the Wings were shut out in Game 7 of a playoff series was 51 years ago. The Maples Leafs clinched the Stanley Cup with a 4-0 win over Detroit in a seven-game series. …