Yzerman’s Lightning beat Wings with Detroit blueprint

The Red Wings’ perch atop the Atlantic Division standings didn’t last long. Just 48 hours or so after they had clawed their way to the top, they were struck by Lightning. And it wasn’t pretty.

The Wings have proved a lot of doubters wrong by essentially securing a playoff spot for the 24th straight season in January, but they also proved they were no match for a team that has ranked near top of the overall NHL standings all season. General Manager Steve Yzerman’s high-scoring Tampa Bay club won, 5-1, ending Detroit’s six-game win streak — and made it look easy.

Darren Helm scored Detroit’s lone goal. Rookie Cedric Paquette led the way for Tampa, scoring his first career three-goal hat trick. So with a franchise-record ninth straight home victory, the Lightning reclaimed first place in the Atlantic, where it’s been most of the season.

"Stevie Y. has done a fabulous job building his team," Wings General Manager Ken Holland said.

How has Yzerman done it? Credit "the Red Wing way."

You hear that term popping up in conversations a lot these days in conversations with folks Holland, Wings coach Mike Babcock, Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill and others involved in building one of the most consistently excellent franchises in recent NHL history.

Yzerman, the former Wings captain and Hall of Famer as the first player drafted by Detroit after Mike and Marian Ilitch bought the club in 1982, personifies the genesis of the Red Wing way. But there is little doubt that Yzerman has used the blueprint he learned so well in Detroit  — 23 seasons on the ice and three more as a front-office executive — to build an impressive NHL power since taking the job nearly five years ago.

As in Detroit, Yzerman leads a franchise dedicated to building through the draft and developing players in a strong minor-league system. Holland recalled how in 2013, Detroit’s top farm club, Grand Rapids, met Tampa Bay’s, Syracuse, in the American Hockey League playoffs.

The Grand Rapids Griffins won that series four games to two. But less than two years later, 18 players who played in that series were on the ice Thursday night at Amalie Arena — 10 on the Wings’ side and eight on Tampa’s.

On this night, though, the young Wings were no competition, getting outskated, outworked and generally roughed up by the NHL’s highest-scoring offense. And anyone who has been paying attention couldn’t have been surprised. The Wings have played some of their poorest hockey of the season in their recent six-game win streak, and arguably were lucky to win against Minnesota and Buffalo at home, and at Florida on Tuesday night.

Detroit’s calling card all season has been its defense. But opponents have scored a whopping (21) goals in the last four games. Until Thursday, an offensive surge has helped to overcome far too many defensive breakdowns. The special teams have been anything but in recent weeks. The penalty-killing unit gave up a goal for the sixth straight game and ninth in the last 11 games. The power play didn’t score, but allowed Tampa Bay a shorthanded goal.

"I think when you’re winning a lot of games, sometimes you start to cheat a little bit," captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "When you go away from your structure, teams will score on you. We’ve got to learn from this and get back to playing the way we should."

Most alarming, perhaps, has been the play of goaltender Petr Mrazek, who performed so well earlier in his rookie season. He has been roughed up in each of his last four starts, giving up 21 goals and failing to finish for the second time in those four games, and his confidence appears to be eroding with each start in place of the injured Jimmy Howard.

But coach Mike Babcock says he loves what he’s seen to date from his young goalie.

"He’s 10-4-1. I’d say that’s outstanding, no question about it," Babcock said of Mrazek. "He’s got NHL moxie. He knows how to play. He knows how to compete. He just has to work on his skill level, just like all young guys."

Babcock chose to emphasize that he appreciated how his team reacted after losing its All-Star goalie.

"They fed us our lunch tonight, but we had a good run," he said. "When Howie went down, if I’d have said we’d go 6-0, now 6-1, I don’t think anybody would have believed me.

"We’ll flush this and keep going. We just gave up too much. The puck can’t go in the net like it’s been going in. We’ve just got to keep grinding."

It doesn’t get any easier. The Wings return home for a Saturday matinee game against the New York Islanders — the team they were tied with atop the Eastern Conference standings until the flop in Tampa. The Islanders lost, 5-2, to Boston at home on Thursday, so they’ll arrive in an ornery mood. If they can’t clean up their act quickly, the Wings will be in danger of losing their second straight game in regulation — for the first time all season.

So as bad as it looked against the Lightning, as Babcock noted, the sky isn’t exactly falling in Hockeytown. Look for his team to bounce back. It’s the Red Wing way.