TAMPA BAY – The start of the Stanley Cup playoffs is still more than three weeks away, but apparently nobody told the Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning who were entwined in an incredible 60-minute postseason-like battle Friday night.
“Everyone knows right now this would be the match-up, so it would be a good match-up,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “Both teams probably like to play against each other. We’ll see how it goes.”
Detroit and Tampa could very easily be a second- versus third-seed playoff matchup – or ever a first versus fourth – next month. Yet making the playoffs is becoming more of a priority for these Wings, who have dropped six of the last eight games, and now trail second-place Tampa Bay by eight points in the Atlantic Division standings.
But the Wings’ level of concern hasn’t touched on desperation.
“We’re not hunters,” Zetterberg said. “Teams are behind us and we’re still ahead. Little bit more concern before the Pittsburgh game, in my mind. The way we played in the last three, we’ve been doing a lot of good things. Obviously you want the points – that’s important. If we keep playing like this we’ll be fine.”
The intensity and pace of Friday’s game had all the makings of a classic playoff game with plenty of hard hitting, quality scoring chances and outstanding goaltending at both ends of the ice.
But in the end, the outcome boiled down to one mistake – a turnover inside the offensive blue line – that resulted in a late go-ahead goal for the Lightning, who held on to defeat the Red Wings 3-1 in front of an electrified crowd inside Amalie Arena.
A Wings’ turnover in the offensive zone helped the Lightning regain a one-goal lead. Alex Killorn scored at 10:31, but it was pretty passing by Jonathan Drouin and Victor Hedman that set up Killorn’s game-winner from the slot.
“I think we showed lots of good stuff,” said Tomas Tatar, who scored the Wings’ lone goal Friday. “At the end we did the turnover at the blue line and it seems to me that one guy started to lose control of the puck and he slides it over to a guy who was in an even better position and they score a goal. I think that’s put us on our knees.”
Most of the game was dictated by the play of the goaltenders – the Wings’ Jimmy Howard and the Lightning’s Ben Bishop. Both veterans made a number of outstanding saves to keep the score close from start to finish.
“Howie played good, our penalty killing has gone three games in a row without giving one up,” coach Mike Babcock said. “We seem to be skating better, but when you’re on a winning streak like we were you win some games sometimes maybe you shouldn’t and then crawling out of these things sometimes you lose couple more than you should but as long as you keep doing good things, good things are going to happen to you.”
Sluggish starts have repeatedly plagued the Wings throughout the season. But Friday, the day after losing 3-1 to the Florida Panthers, the Wings were quickly on point.
“I think we felt better today than we did yesterday,” Zetterberg said. “From the start we had better legs. It was kind of nice to have a game … having played a game yesterday. I didn’t think that was the difference. Maybe it looked different from the stands. We had good jump today. We were a little more into it than we were yesterday.”
Following a scoreless first period, where Bishop and Howard made 13 and 11 saves, respectively, it didn’t take long for the Lightning to strike one the puck dropped to start the second period.
A pair of Tampa defensemen combined to score the first goal of the game at 1:22 of the middle frame. Hedman fired a blast from the left point, which was initially stopped by Howard, but the rebound caromed off his left pad and right to Anton Stralman, who slipped down into the zone and popped the rebound into the open side of the net.
About 4 ½ minutes later, the Wings’ power play produced the equalizer when Tatar, in a scramble in front of Bishop, poked the puck under the Lightning’s goalie for his team-leading 26th goal of the season. The unassisted goal at 6:57 was Tatar’s ninth power-play tally and his first goal in the past nine games.
“I just saw the puck so I try to put the pressure on, try to push everything in,” Tatar said. “I don’t know, it’s hard to tell for me. I didn’t really see if I touched it or not.”
Still trailing 2-1, Babcock took advantage of a faceoff deep in Tampa territory, calling a timeout with 2:14 left in regulation and lifting Howard for an extra skater. Detroit managed to keep pressure on the Lightning until Steven Stamkos outraced Niklas Kronwall to a loose puck, pushing it into the empty net with 28-seconds left.
Despite the loss, the Wings did plenty of good things, especially their penalty kill. Since giving up at least one power-play goal in nine consecutive games, the Wings’ PK has now extinguished 10 straight minor penalties, including three in Tampa Bay on Friday.
With a dozen games left, the Wings hope to get top-line center Pavel Datsyuk (lower-body injury) back for Sunday’s noon matinee against the St. Louis Blues.
“I thought the last three games were encouraging for me,” Babcock said. “I thought last night we had tons of opportunity and today we did as well. But I thought we started to skate better. For a while there after the (six-game road) trip we didn’t skate at all, we couldn’t move, but it looks to me our energy is coming back. Ideally, it would be nice to get Pavel back.”
Detroit and Tampa Bay will meet for the fourth and final time in the regular season next Saturday at Joe Louis Arena.