DETROIT – When confronted with who to play and who not to play, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has usually given the tie to the veteran over the young prospect.
But the margin for error is so small at playoff time.
That’s why Babcock said Monday that 23-year-old Petr Mrazek will start the first-round playoff series against Tampa Bay over the more-experienced veteran Jimmy Howard.
Mrazek will make his Stanley Cup playoff debut against the Lightning in Game 1 Thursday at Amalie Arena.
“This is what I try to do,” Babcock said after announcing his decision, “Lou Lamoriello has an unbelievable rule and that’s called don’t confuse the player and the person. What I do is try and take all the emotion out of it and I try to take the information I have by watching games and by talking to our staff and then I make the decision that’s best for the team.”
Asked how Howard took the news of his benching, Babcock said, “It’s not about any of us right now, it’s about the Detroit Red Wings. It’s real simple. It doesn’t matter if you play one shift or 50 shifts or you’re scratched or not, it’s how you handle it and how you make the team better. The individual time of the year is all over. It’s all about the team, let’s get ready to play.”
There was a time this season that the Wings’ goaltending was a source of depth of this team. But since they returned from a six-game road trip through the Western Conference in February, the goalies have been on rocky ground. Detroit allowed four or more goals in seven of the final 20 games, while Mrazek and Howard were each pulled once from a start.
But they also had some outstanding performances against playoff teams like the New York Rangers (2-1), Pittsburgh (5-1), St. Louis (2-1), and Tampa Bay (4-0).
Babcock’s decision boiled down to which goalie puts the Wings in the best position to win.
“I just watch the guys play and I just thought that (Mrazek) gives us the best way to start the series,” the Wings’ coach said.
It’s hard to argue with Mrazek’s credentials – when he’s winning. In his last six wins, dating back to a 4-1 home win over the New York Islanders on Jan. 31, he’s posted a 0.50 goals-against average with a .982 save percentage and three shutouts.
For Mrazek, who grew up in Czech Republic idolizing former Wings goalie and recently minted Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek, getting his first Stanley Cup playoff assignment is beyond special.
“It’s huge,” Mrazek said. “First of all, I was drafted in 2010, Dominik Hasek was here when they won the Cup so everyone in Europe was a hero. That dream came true when I played my first game in the NHL two years ago and now it’s a huge step to play my first game in the playoffs.”
Nearly three years ago, Mrazek became an overnight sensation when he made 52 saves to lead the Czechs to a 5-2 win against the United States in a World Junior Championship preliminary game in Edmonton.
Since then, Mrazek has guided the Wings’ minor-league affiliate to a Calder Cup title in 2013 and started 26 games this season when Howard and Jonas Gustavsson were sidelined by injuries.
“I have 100 percent confidence in Mrazek,” proclaimed defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, who said he’ll approach every game the same regardless of who is in net.
“I’m going to prepare the same way,” he said. “I’m not going to prepare any differently for the game or for Howie – or it’s probably going to be Mrazek. Whoever it’s going to be, it’s probably nicer for them or good for them to know. Whoever starts, they just have to play their best and they’ll be fine.”
Unfortunately, strife over who should be the Wings’ No. 1 playoff goalie has existed in Detroit for decades. Henrik Zetterberg said it’s something that players get used to.
“We got good goaltenders in here, not just one but three of them basically,” the Wings’ captain said. “Mrazek was good last game. I think Howie was good down the stretch when he was playing. Whoever they’re going with here, we’re comfortable.”
But for the players, especially the veterans, the outside controversy isn’t a distraction.
“We’re pretty used to that in this town,” Zetterberg said. “It goes back to (Chris) Osgood and Hasek and Howie and Osgood. I think it’s something they’re used to, too. It’s part of it. In here we focus on what we do. People outside can worry about other stuff.”
In between shutting out the Lightning and Carolina in a two-week stretch, Mrazek struggled. He gave up fives goals – including a couple soft ones – in two games that the Red Wings had to have in the standings, but lost to Boston and Washington.
Certainly, the 4-0 win over Tampa Bay and Saturday’s 2-0 win against the Hurricanes will provide a jolt of confidence to the young goaltender, who plans to approach Game 1 like any other game.
“It’s not difficult, it’s just a game,” Mrazek said. “Who’s going to score more goals is going to win, who’s going to be smarter and more patient is going to have the victory so just stay positive and let’s go win the game.”
ABDELKADER UPDATE: Justin Abdelkader isn’t much for setting odds these days.
The Red Wings’ forward, who suffered a hand injury while blocking a shot in Minnesota on April 4, said he remains day to day while hoping to be available for Thursday’s series opener in Tampa Bay.
“I don’t know. I’m not into too much odds,” he said. “We’ll see. Day-by-day right now, I’m hoping to. I think I’ve progressed. I feel better. I’m not going to rule out Thursday.”
Abdelkader skated for a short time Monday at practice, but left the ice before the team began battle drills.
Abdelkader, who finished with the first 20-goal season of his career – he ended up with 23 goals and 44 points in 71 games – has missed four games.
“It’s been pretty good, but with any kind of injury it’s not going to go from one to 10 right away. There’s numbers in between. It feels better so we’ll see how it progresses. We have three more days which is nice since we don’t start till Thursday.”
FIRST-TIMERS: When the playoffs begin Thursday in Florida, four Wings will make their Stanley Cup playoff debuts with Mrazek, defenseman Alexey Marchenko and forwards Teemu Pulkkinen and Landon Ferraro
“To be here, to play in the playoffs, it’s probably one of the best moments in hockey to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” said Marchenko, who was recalled from Grand Rapids last Friday. “I’m really excited to get started.”
Babcock indicated Monday that Mrazek, Marchenko and Ferraro will be in the Wings’ Game 1 lineup. Pulkkinen did not take part in line drills at Monday’s practice, leaving his status for Thursday’s game in doubt.
For those, like Marchenko, who didn’t play against the Lightning this season, they’ll have to study up on their first-round opponent as there’s plenty to learn in the next few days.
“We got like some meetings to talk about some of their players,” Marchenko said. “Anyway, I watch the games. This team’s got speed. We have to be just better than them and give everything to win.”