Wings limp home after offense absent in loss to Tampa Bay

The loss prevented the Wings (38-21-11, 87 points) from expanding their four-point lead over Boston.

Kim Klement

Listen to the Red Wings, and all this talk about Friday’s Detroit-Tampa Bay tussle being a preview of what’s to come in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in a few weeks is a tad overblown. Listen to their coach, and all the handwringing about their inability to win against the power teams in their division so far this season is awfully premature.

Regardless of how well the Wings played again in a 3-1 loss at Tampa — their sixth defeat in eight games — this game provided an ample glimpse into the future. And it isn’t especially pleasant.

If the season ended today, Detroit and Tampa Bay would meet in the first round. But right now, it doesn’t matter who the Wings’ opponent might be. If they keep playing like they have been this month, their 24th straight appearance in the postseason will be a short one again.

The loss prevented the Wings (38-21-11, 87 points) from expanding their four-point lead over Boston, the President’s Trophy winner last season that has been closing fast on Detroit. Tampa Bay, meantime, (44-21-7, 95 points) improved its lead to eight points over the third-place Wings in the Atlantic Division. With just 12 games remaining, the Lightning is pretty much out of reach, especially the way both teams are playing.

Tomas Tatar scored the lone Detroit goal, his team-leading 26th. The Wings managed just two goals in two nights in the final two games of their four-game road trip that ended 1-3.

For the second night in a row, the Wings’ goaltending was good enough to win. Jimmy Howard, who allowed all seven goals in a loss at Philadelphia to start this trip, looked like the goalie he was in the first half of the season, which earned him an invitation to play in the NHL All-Star game. He stopped all but two of the 31 shots he faced.

The game turned on a giveaway at his own blue line by slumping Gustav Nyquist, creating an odd-man rush that resulted in a goal midway through the third period by Alex Killorn, his 15th. Steve Stamkos iced the victory with an empty-net goal, his 40th of the season. Big Ben Bishop made 30 saves for his 35th victory.

So while the game might have been hyped as an indicator of what is to come, it was just another night at the office for the players, Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg insisted.

"It’s two points. That’s what we’re playing for," he said before the game. "It doesn’t matter what happened in the past or what might happen in the future."

With the loss, however, the concern is more about what’s happened in the past. The Wings are now 1-6-3 against their top divisional opponents — 0-2-1 against Montreal, 0-2-1 against Tampa Bay, and 1-2-1 against Boston. Why?

"’Cause they beat us," Babcock said. "I never thought about it. I knew we hadn’t done very well against Boston but I hadn’t been through it or thought about it. We can worry about Tampa, Boston and Montreal if we’re fortunate to meet them in the playoffs."

Making the playoffs isn’t the issue, according to the website, which says the Detroit has a 98 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason tournament. The issue is how do they return to the form that had them challenging Montreal, Tampa and the New York Rangers for supremacy in the Eastern Conference for the first three quarters of the season?

Zetterberg said the Wings were far more concerned before the 5-1 win at Pittsburgh on Sunday — the lone victory on this trip. He felt his team has rebounded nicely since that 7-2 loss the day before at Philadelphia.

"The way we’ve played the last three, we’ve been doing a lot of good things," Zetterberg said. "If we keep playing like this, we’ll be OK."

The issue lately, he acknowledged, is a struggling offense. With opponents tightening up their defenses down the stretch, scoring is increasingly difficult.

"We should be able to score more goals," Zetterberg said. "We have some good chances. We can’t find ways to score goals, and we have to do that if we want to start winning games."

That said, Zetterberg acknowledged that a Detroit-Tampa Bay meeting in a best-of-seven playoff series could be entertaining for everyone.

"Everyone knows right now this would be the matchup," he said. "I think it would be a good matchup. Both teams would probably like to play each other. We’ll see how it goes down the stretch."

Howard agreed. "I think it would be a hell of a matchup, that’s for sure," he said. "It would be extremely tight and come down to who gets the bounces."

Babcock agreed with his captain that the Wings seem to be headed in the right direction since the Pittsburgh game and insisted as he has for the past month that his team’s first priority is qualifying for the playoffs. But if Tampa happens to be the opponent?

"Obviously, it would be pretty good," he said. "Especially if we get (Pavel) Datsyuk back in the lineup. I think he would make a real difference. But we’d certainly look forward to that opportunity."

Datsyuk missed the last two games with what was described as a lower-body injury. He remains questionable for Sunday’s game against visiting St. Louis. Face-off is at noon.