DETROIT – Mistakes are always costly, but in the playoffs they’re magnified.
Two bad lines changes led to a three-goal hole Wednesday for the Red Wings, who entered the night in a great situation to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, which begin Friday night in Montreal.
Instead, the Red Wings must now win a Game 7 battle following a 5-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning before a raucous crowd inside Joe Louis Arena. The decisive game in the best-of-seven series is 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Amalie Arena.
Even-strength goals by Jason Garrison and Tyler Johnson gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead before the midway point of the second period. Both goals came when the Lightning caught the Wings on line changes.
“Obviously both of them, we give up odd-man rushes,” forward Gustav Nyquist said. “They got their fourth guy coming; third one was more of a breakaway-type goal, but second one for sure. They got two D and we’re changing and that’s not good enough.”
Tampa Bay scored on their second shot of the game, set up by a beautiful 130-foot stretch pass by Victor Hedman to Nikita Kucherov at the far blue line. Kucherov then spotted Johnson streaking unimpeded to the net before roofing a shot over Petr Mrazek’s right shoulder. Goals by Garrison and another one by Johnson – tying him with St. Louis forward Vladimir Tarasenko for the playoff lead with six goals – created a three-goal cushion for the visitors.
Alex Killorn and Cedric Paquette (empty net) added third-period goals for the Lightning, owners of the best home record (32-8-1) during the regular season.
The Wings must now win a third road game in this series if they are advance against the Canadiens, who eliminated Ottawa in six games. Detroit won Game 1 (3-2) and Game 5 (4-0) in Tampa.
“I think we’ve been doing a lot of good things here as of late,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “We have to clean up a few areas. But the biggest thing is that we … we just keep coming. It doesn’t matter what the score is or what the outcome might be. We gotta come back here and play a good game on Wednesday. It’s pretty much the same way after the last game here, home game. We went down there and played a really solid game. That’s what we gotta do again.”
The Wings responded with their best single-game effort of the series, winning on the road in Game 5, following a devastating Game 4 loss when they blew a two-goal lead with less than six minutes remaining, and eventually lost in overtime.
The Wings had chances to pull off a comeback on Monday. By early in the third, they had trimmed their deficit to 3-2 on goals by Tomas Tatar – a power-play tally at 12:26 of the second, and an even-strength number at 1:39 of the final period.
Tatar’s goals gave the Wings hope. On his first goal play, the young forward skated undetected into the low right circle, took a cross-ice pass from Kronwall, and ripped a shot off Ben Bishop’s left-catching glove at 12:26 of the second period.
The Wings’ second goal came as Tatar wheeled out front of the net and while fending off Braydon Coburn and Valtteri Filppula, the Wings’ forward re-gathered the bouncing puck and swept it underneath Bishop.
Despite allowing four goals, Mrazek was once again stellar for the Wings. If not for several huge saves, particularly in the second period, the Lightning could have had a five-goal lead.
One particular stop by Mrazek was the highlight-reel save of the 2015 playoffs. Brian Boyle cruised in from the slot, deked Mrazek out of position and fired shot toward a wide-open net that would have given the Lightning a 3-0 lead at the time. However, Mrazek lunged backward and made an unbelievable save with the paddle of his stick.
A minute later, Mrazek made a similarly stellar save on Steven Stamkos, the league’s second leading scorer during the season who is still looking for his first goal of this series.
“I see a few of those from him. He does it in the practice,” said Tatar, of Mrazek’s heroics. “You think the puck will go in and all the sudden he puts the stick out or it goes off his pants. He’s a great goalie and obviously those saves kept us in the game.”
Another play that could have rippling affects Wednesday was Kronwall’s massive hit on Kucherov along the half wall late in the second period. The hit knocked the Russian’s helmet off and left him momentarily dazed.
Kronwall didn’t receive a penalty for the hit, however, there was some speculation following the game that the league may review the play before deciding whether to levy supplemental discipline against the Wings’ veteran defenseman, who has gained a reputation for his thundering, yet clean, body checks.
“I haven’t seen it in replay so I really can’t say too much about it,” Kronwall said. “I thought it was a clear hit at the time.”
Asked if he thought Kronwall’s hit was dirty, the 21-year-old Kucherov said, “It’s a hit. He made a hit. I’m not going to cry now. It’s a part of the game. That’s why we play here.”
The Wings have played well in this series, but now they must keep the series win-loss pattern intact.
“I thought we were going along pretty fine there at the start, then next thing you know it’s in our net,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “We have to get our mind right again, and get ready for a Game 7. No team’s been able to win two games in a row thus far in the series, so let’s go to Tampa.”
Neither team has put together consecutive wins in this series, as the Red Wings and Lightning have claimed two road wins each through the first six games.
The Red Wings are trying to become the fourth team to advance as the lower seed in the 2015 playoffs. Minnesota, Chicago and Calgary have already advanced.
Detroit last won a Game 7 on the road at Anaheim in the 2013 conference quarterfinals, defeating the Ducks 3-2.