All those experts who picked the Tampa Bay Lightning to run roughshod over the Red Wings in this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series knew what they were talking about. The Lightning were every bit as good as advertised Thursday night.
Nevertheless, the Wings — as they did so often in the first half of the regular season — found a way to be a little better in the end.
Consider that they managed just 14 shots on goal to Tampa’s 46. And they took seven penalties, including another for having too many men on the ice. Yet the Wings still managed to skate off with a 3-2 victory that, if they’re honest with themselves, must have felt more like an escape.
"We came in here to get a win, we got a win," said Mike Babcock. "It’s a race to four, and you start by getting one."
To get more, though, he warned, the Wings will have to play much better in Game 2 on Saturday (3 p.m. face-off). They’ll have to.
It’s only one of a best-of-seven series, but already this is shaping up to be awfully interesting, and entertaining in the extreme — as players on both sides predicted coming in.
All that hand-wringing over how Wings rookie goaltender Petr Mrazek, 23, would hold up under the enormous pressure from the highest-scoring offense in the NHL proved to be misplaced. Imagine the hand-wringing moving forward after the way the rookie in the other net played.
Ben Bishop, 28, was playing in his first Stanley Cup playoff game, too. Their performances were the difference in this game.
Mrazek was the best player on the ice, making 44 saves with his team under siege against the NHL’s most prolific offence. Mrazek stole this one — as you hope your goalie will do in a long series — and in the process set a record for most saves by a Detroit goaltender making his playoff debut.
"We like to pick our goalie (up) when he doesn’t play good," Babcock said. "And we like for the goalie to pick us up when we’re not too good.
"Pete was there, he was square. He played the puck well. He stopped the puck well. It’s kind of what we’ve come to expect of him. He’s a real good goaltender, and he’s got a lot of confidence now."
Bishop, meanwhile, looked like he couldn’t stop a beach ball most of the evening. He allowed two goals on Detroit’s first four shots. And he was overmatched on Luke Glendening’s breakaway spin-o-rama backhander at the end of a long penalty killing shift on the goal that stood as the game-winner. The puck somehow leaked through Bishop’s pads, giving the Wings a little breathing room with a two-goal lead with more than 14 long minutes still to play.
Pavel Datsyuk scored Detroit’s first two goals, both set up nicely by Darren Helm — whose speed really opens things up nicely for linemates Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Datsyuk’s second goal came on a power play that broke a 1-1 tie in the second period.
But the highlight of the evening for the Wings, outside of Mrazek’s mastery, was their penalty killers who snuffed all seven Lightning power plays. Glendening not only potted the winning goal, he made the winning defensive play to help preserve the win while the Wings were killing off a penalty in the final minute.
With four Detroit skaters against Tampa Bay’s six, Glendening went to his knee to block a desperation shot, then had the presence of mind to use his left skate to kick the puck out of the Wings’ zone as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
It may not have been pretty, but the Wings found a way — as they like to say — to beat a team that isn’t used to losing at home. The Lightning set a franchise record with 32 victories at Amalie Arena this season — the most home wins in the league. The Wings, conversely, haven’t had much luck at Tampa Bay. This was their first win there since February, 2011.
So this series takes a fascinating turn after just getting started. Game 2 is suddenly a must-win proposition for the favorites. Tampa Bay is mediocre, at best, away from home. And for a few days, at least, all the worry about goaltending shifts to the other team.
One more interesting subplot that hasn’t gotten much attention: Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who has enjoyed wonderful success in the regular season the past two years, is still looking for his first Stanley Cup playoff victory. His team was swept out of the tournament last spring, losing four games in six days to Montreal in the opening round. Five Stanley Cup games, and an 0-5 record. Coaches, like goaltenders, earn their spurs in the playoffs.
Listening to Babcock after the game, though, it’s clear that the Wings won’t be suffering from overconfidence after this win.
"We took seven minors. That’s way too many and that’s a problem," the coach said. "And up front, we didn’t have enough guys going.
"We can skate way better, manage the puck way better and play better than we did tonight."
Asked if he expected any changes for Saturday’s game, Babcock nodded.
"There will be lots of changes in the way we play," he said. "But we’ll watch the game and figure it out."
At the risk or repeating ourselves, we’ll say again: They better.
The Wings got off to a similar surprise start last spring in the opening round against President’s Trophy-winning Boston. Then they lost the next four. Better to remember that bit of recent history or be doomed to repeat it.