DETROIT – Now that the Red Wings have taken a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, consistency becomes the biggest factor.
But like every Stanley Cup playoff game there are two sides to every equation.
“Our part is we have to get prepared and ready to go and understand that Tampa is going to do their part too so the game has to be better,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday. “Each game of the series you have to get better to have success. We put ourselves in a good situation. We don’t want to give the situation back, which mean our preparation has to be equal to their preparation today and tomorrow so we’re ready to go so that’s what our focus is.”
Inconsistency has been a bee in the Red Wings’ bonnet since early March. They haven't strung along more than three wins together since since a six-game winning streak in January.
Still, alternating wins and losses didn’t derail this club’s ability to gain a remarkable 24th consecutive playoff berth. But losing is never part of any successful playoff blueprint.
“We’ve got to come out tomorrow like we did yesterday,” proclaimed captain Henrik Zetterberg. “Have a lot of energy, good jump from the start, take control of the game like we did, and get the first goal.”
By far, Tuesday’s 3-0 win at Joe Louis Arena was Detroit’s best played game of the series. The Wings will need more of the same if they plan to grab hold of this series and put the Lightning in a precarious 1-3 hole.
“They got the upper hand in the first two games, I think they were better than us,” defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said. “Last night we really spent some time in the offensive zone and put a lot of miles on their D-men. That really worked. They looked tired for the first time in the series last night so that’s a good sign for us. I think we were energized by that too. We have to do the same thing tomorrow.”
While it wasn’t necessarily their most dominant performance, many of the Wings’ younger players stepped up and chipped in at key moments.
Riley Sheahan scored his first career playoff goal, Tomas Tatar collected his first career postseason assist, and Luke Glendening also scored. The former University of Michigan standout has three goals in eight career playoff games, including the game winner in Game 1.
Petr Mrazek roared back from an abysmal Game 2 loss by making 22 saves and becoming the fifth rookie goaltender to record a playoff shutout in franchise history, joining Earl Robertson, Terry Sawchuk, Chris Osgood and Jimmy Howard.
Mrazek has 66 saves on 68 shots in the two wins, and overall, he has posted a 2.25 goals-against average with a .930 save percentage in the playoffs.
The penalty kill was outstanding again. Detroit maintained a relatively strong PK in the first half of the season, but it crumbled a little late in the campaign. Fortunately, the PK relocated its mojo in their Game 1 and Game 3 wins.
Though the Wings’ PK is 13-for-13 in their two wins – and 15-of-17 in the series – Babcock is not pleased about the 19 minor penalties that he club has taken, which is tied with Chicago for the most in the postseason.
“We’re on the penalty kill way too much, got to stay out of the box, that’s crazy,” Babcock said. “To give up a 5-on-3, it’s tough when you shoot it over the class or whatever we did. That 5-on-3 that posts were really kind to us. They made a real play to Johnson, that was tough to handle, but we have good penalty killers. We’ve had good penalty killers. We got off to a great start this year, we struggled in net for a while there, but we seem to have our penalty killing back. To test it each night with six or seven is crazy, three would be enough.”
Defensive play from the younger players has also been a huge benefit, which is why the Red Wings have had great success at shutting down Tampa Bay’s most lethal scorers. During the season, Tyler Johnson, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan and Nikita Kucherov scored a combined 125 goals. Against the Wings, only Johnson has scored, twice, in Game 2.
Keeping the league’s second-leading scorer silent has been a total team effort. Sheahan had the responsibility of playing against Stamkos in the two games in Tampa, while Pavel Datsyuk did his usually splendid two-way job against the 43-goal scorer in Game 3.
“We know he’s really skilled and fast out there,” Ericsson said. “We have to try and take away his speed and time out there. I think we’ve all done a good job so far. We know he’s always a dangerous threat, especially in the offensive zone and inside the blue line. He’s got a real dangerous shot and it gets dangerous wherever he shoots the puck.”
MORE SHOTS: The first-round series hasn’t been exceptionally rough on Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop. The Lightning’s 6-foot-7 goalie has faced just 58 of the Wings’ 59 shots – that’s a 19.7 average for the first three games of the series, which is the lowest among this spring’s playoff teams.
The Wings’ top eight players in shots during the regular season are all firing below their average so far against the Lightning. Detroit averaged 29.6 shots per game, finishing 18th in the league. Captain Henrik Zetterberg, who led the Wings at 2.95 shots per game during the season, has just five shots.
However, the Wings have scored seven goals and lead the playoffs with an 11.9 shooting percentage.
One reason the shot total is so low could be the fact that the Wings’ penalty killers, like Glendening, Drew Miller and Joakim Andersson, are logging so much short-handed ice time n this series.
“You want to shoot the puck obviously, but like last night there was a lot of penalty kill minutes and the main focus there isn’t shooting the puck,” said Andersson, who hasn’t registered a shot in three games. “I want to get to the net and shoot the puck more for sure.”
Another reason for the low shots totals is that both teams play with such defensive structure and committment.
“We’re trying to take their space away and they’re trying to do the same to us, so it’s hard to get in on the inside,” Andersson said. “They box out and we box out, so it’s hard to get shots. It’s a tight series. You’ve got to battle hard on the inside to get shots off and that’s what we’ve talked about because we want to get more shots off.”
SERIES NOTES: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that go up 3-1 in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoffs series hold an all-time series record of 249-27 – that’s 90.2 percent. … Datsyuk scored his seventh game-winning goal in 148 career postseason games. A possible Selke Trophy nominee as the league’s top defensive forward, Datsyuk scored five game winners during the regular season, one shy of his career high. … With two assists in Game 3, Ericsson snapped an 11-game point drought with his first multi-point game since Feb. 2, 2013. It was his first multi-point game in 67 career postseason games. … Overall, the team to score the first goal has won each of the past six games between the Wings and Lightning.