DETROIT – For someone who is usually quite talkative, Brendan Smith seemed caught off guard when reporters approached him in the Red Wings dressing room following Monday’s practice at Joe Louis Arena.
The assembled media were interested in knowing Smith’s thoughts on making his 2015 playoff debut Tuesday when the Red Wings host the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of their best-of-7 Eastern Conference first-round series.
“You guys are the ones telling me so I don’t know,” Smith said. “I haven’t been told so I don’t know. I’m just going to be ready when they call me.”
Smith has been a healthy scratch for the past three games, including the first two games of the series in Tampa. Some think it’s punishment for his costly bench penalty that gave Montreal a two-man advantage late in the third period. The Canadiens scored, tying the game, and eventually won in overtime 4-3 on April 9.
Fortunately for the Wings and Smith, Pittsburgh defeated Ottawa that same evening, which gave Detroit its 24th consecutive playoff berth on the second from last night of the regular season.
Monday morning radio show interview, Babcock announced that he was replacing rookie Alexey Marchenko with Smith on the blue line when the series resumes in Detroit.
After practice, Babcock was asked what, if anything, he hoped Smith learned from his indiscretion since he last played, but the Wings’ coach did a good job of deflecting the question.
“I don’t need to get into that, Smitty can really skate and competes,” Babcock said. “I don’t think we’re skating good enough and I don’t think we’re competing hard enough. So there are two things.”
Defensively, the Wings gave a much better effort in Game 1, boxing out the Lightning’s forwards, allowing rookie goalie Petr Mrazek to see most of the 44 shots he stopped. But Saturday’s 5-1 loss in Game 2 was far different, which led to Babcock’s decision.
“I didn’t think we gave our goaltender an opportunity (in Game 2),” Babcock said. “When you come back in your zone and four guys have a chance to put the fire out and (Andrej) Sustr fires it into the open net to me that’s tough one. When you turn the puck over at the offensively blue line with (38) seconds left in the period and for them to make it four that was tough one as well.
“The other goal, even though we got a real bad bounce off Marchenko’s leg, he skated right by us in the neutral zone. To me those things, even though we did better things offensively, I don’t think those things allow you to have any success whatsoever come playoff time.”
The Lightning is a highly-skilled offensive team with tremendously gifted skaters that move the puck very well and create chases off the rush. They didn’t lead the league in scoring for nothing.
To combat the Lightning’s style the Wings must match their speed, intensity and compete level, something Smith can do from the back end.
“When Smith plays he can really skate with the puck,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “He keeps up with their forwards. I think he’s a good fit for this series.”
In Monday’s practice, Smith was paired with veteran Marek Zidlicky. The two played quite a bit together before Smith was benched.
“I think they’ll be a really good pair together,” said Justin Abdelkader, who will also make his 2015 playoff debut on Tuesday. “Sometimes as a player if you’re scratched for whatever reason you can watch the games and kinda learn and I think he did that. I think he can learn a few things just watching from the stands and the locker room and can learn. I think he’s gonna be rearing to go. … This is the time we all fight for as players to play this time of year. I look forward to having him back and I know he’ll be excited and bring his best.”
Still, Smith wasn’t ready to do back flips based on what he heard Monday afternoon.
“Like I said I’m not sure I am, people telling me that I am, but I’ve had that happen before,” he said. “If I have the chance to play I’ll be happy and I’ll just answer the bell because that’s what I do.”