DETROIT — The biggest question mark coming into the playoffs has become an exclamation point.
Surrendering just nine goals through five games of the first-round series, goalie Petr Mrazek has neutralized an otherwise potent offense with a chance to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6.
As the top scoring offense in the NHL, Tampa came into the playoffs as a heavy favorite over the Red Wings. Through 82 regular-season games and five playoff games, the Lightning had only been shut out three times. However, all three of those scoreless outings have been at the hands of Mrazek and two coming in the last week.
“His first year in the American League he wins the Calder Cup. You don’t win the Calder Cup by accident, you must be good,” coach Mike Babcock said. “Then every time we called him up, he played good. To me, he’s just one of these guys that must be good. He must be, I don’t know, he just keeps doing it so he must be. I don’t know enough about the technical skill and all that stuff, I just know it doesn’t go in when he’s in there.”
With two stellar performances — a 3-0 shutout at home in Game 3 and a 4-0 shutout on the road in Game 5 — Mrazek became the 14th Red Wings goalie to post two shutouts in one playoff series. Joined by the likes of Earl Robertson (1937), Johnny Mowers (1943), Glen Hanlon (1987) and Tim Cheveldae (1992), Mrazek and Normie Smith (1936) are the only goalies to achieve the feat in their first playoff series as a Red Wing. Four goalies achieved the milestone twice in their careers as Harry Lumley (1945 and 1950), Terry Sawchuk (1952, 1952) Chris Osgood (2000, 2008) and Dominik Hasek (2002, 2002) have also earned two shutouts in a playoff series.
The Wings are 12-1 in series in which their goalie gets two shutouts, the only setback being a seven-game loss to Toronto in the 1945 Stanley Cup finals when Lumley had shutouts in Game 5 and Game 6.
Heading into Monday’s game with a chance to eliminate the Lightning, Mrazek’s effort in net is a big reason why his team is up 3-2 in the series.
“Petr’s been great for us so far,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said. “I don’t know if too many people outside of the locker room or this area expected him to be playing this well. He’s been standing on his head for us and he’s been making big saves when we need him too and he’s making timely saves. He’s making saves at the right time and not letting any soft goals in. That’s really helped us and hopefully he can keep doing that.”
In terms of NHL rookies, Mrazek became the fifth goaltender since the expansion era (since 1967-68) to register two shutouts in one playoff series. Other rookie goalies include Philadelphia Flyers Ron Hextall (1987), Anaheim Ducks Ilya Bryzgalov (2006), Montreal Canadiens Carey Price (2008) and Washington Capitals Semyon Varlamov (2009).
In good company, what the 23-year-old has accomplished already in his first playoff series is rare and fans could be seeing the start of something very special.
After being shut out in Game 3 and scoreless until 5:26 left in regulation of Game 4, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Tyler Johnson’s third-period goal was like a weight being lifted off of his team. While that goal led to a 3-2 overtime win, Mrazek’s response with a second shutout in Game 5 has put the onus back on Tampa Bay to try and win another game on the road at Joe Louis Arena or be eliminated from the playoffs on Monday.
With the potential to win the series and advance past the first round, Mrazek’s calm, steady approach to Game 6 will be key.
“I wouldn’t say it’s different,” Mrazek said. “You try and be focused for every game. You want to finish it as soon as possible. We know the game starts from 0-0 tomorrow and we’re going to go and play hard.”
The Wings have a riddled history of being eliminated by hot goalies in the playoffs of years past. With Mrazek snuffing the NHL’s hottest offense, could this be the year that the hot goalie resides in Detroit?
SECONDARY SCORING: Center Riley Sheahan scored what proved to be the decisive goal with 23 seconds remaining in the first period of Saturday’s 4-0 win in Game 5, marking the first game-winning tally of his playoff career (10 games played).
“He’s a big piece of this team,” forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “You say that last year with a lot of injuries. He really took the team on his shoulders and played first line minutes and he’s been doing it this year too … For Sheahan, when you score a goal you get confidence. He’s been doing a lot of good things. He’s an all-round player. Playing in all situations. Since Game 3 the power play is doing a lot of good things, strong on the puck. When he gets his change he shoots it pretty well.”
Seven of the team’s 13 goals in the series have come from third- and fourth-line forwards, providing a boost in secondary scoring for the Wings in the playoffs.
VETERAN LEADERS: Pavel Datsyuk added his 42nd career postseason goal, tied for eighth among active players, while Drew Miller notched his sixth career playoff goal and first since May 20, 2013 versus the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I’ve been seeing from Pav what I’ve been seeing the last 10 years,” Zetterberg said. “He just gets better and better the longer the season goes. It doesn’t really matter who he plays against. He always plays with that passion and with that will he has and when you mix that with the skill he has he’s a tough player to play against.”
The longer the series and the season goes, the more reliant the team will be on its veterans.
“As long as you lead by example,” Zetterberg said. “I don’t think me or (Niklas Kronwall) are the type of leaders that have those speeches in the locker room. When we speak it comes natural. We try and show it on the ice and off the ice too. We’ve been playing together for a long time. We’ve been playing with great leaders all our career here. We’ve been learning from Lidstrom, from Yzerman, from Draper, from Chelios and we just try to do the same things they did.”
COACHING MILESTONE: With the win at Tampa on Saturday, coach Mike Babcock picked up his 82nd career postseason victory to tie him with Toe Blake for ninth in NHL history. The win was his 67th playoff victory for the Wings in 10 seasons. With a 3-2 series lead and one win away from advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals, Babcock has a 12-11 record for the Wings in games with a chance to eliminate the opponent from the postseason.
“You play all year, you play all these games, you wanna be in this situation because it’s fun,” Babcock said. “There’s no guarantees, you gotta play to play again. You gotta stay alive. That to me is why you’re in the game.”