Goaltending, special teams lead Red Wings past Islanders

A key to success in the NHL is enjoying the good times when they happen and keeping the bad times to a minimum. Good goaltending doesn’t hurt either.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock was looking for a big rebound from his team — and his goalie — Saturday after a poor outing a few nights earlier in Tampa Bay, and he got it. The Wings returned to the early season form that helped put them among the top teams in the NHL, deploying a stifling defense, lethal special teams and outstanding goaltending from Petr Mrazek for a 4-1 victory over a very good New York Islanders team.

These are the same Islanders who overmatched Detroit in their last visit to The Joe in mid-December.

"At the end of the day, goaltending and special teams won it for them," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said.

Truth be told, neither goaltending nor special teams — nor team defense and work ethic — were much in evidence Thursday in a 5-1 loss to the Lightning. In fact, nearly every important facet of Detroit’s game had been slipping even in its six-game win streak that had them sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, tied with the Islanders, heading into the game at Tampa.

Both teams, however, played clunkers on Thursday. The Islanders lost at home, 5-2 to Boston. With the win over the Wings, Tampa Bay reclaimed the conference lead.

So both benches were in ornery moods at The Joe when the puck dropped Saturday.

"Two good hockey clubs and a well-contested game," Babcock said. "There wasn’t much room out there for either team. It was hard to get to the net. They’re a real good team. They play tight, and they make it hard on you."

Tomas Tatar, Brendan Smith, Jonathan Ericsson and Gustav Nyquist scored the Detroit goals. The Wings scored on three of five power-play chances while limiting the Islanders to one goal on six opportunities with the extra man. And rookie goaltender Petr Mrazek made 22 saves for the win after being pulled after giving up five goals in two periods in Tampa.

"That was really important, obviously," Babcock said. "Any time you get shelled like that, and those things happen in hockey…you have to have a short memory in this league. He got yanked twice (in a four-game span), and he responded really well both times."

Mrazek has started all eight games since All-Star goalie Jimmy Howard went down with a groin injury three weeks ago in Washington. And all the Wings have done is rise in the standings. Saturday’s win put Detroit in a first-place tie again in the Eastern Conference with Montreal. Both clubs had 67 points, one more than Tampa Bay, which played host to Columbus Saturday night.

"Not many teams in this league are going to win seven of eight games with their third goaltender," said Babcock, who has been as impressed as anyone since Mrazek (11-4-1) was called up to serve as Howard’s backup after Jonas Gustavsson dislocated a shoulder in early November.

"We bounced back and got a huge two points against the Islanders, a great team," said Mrazek, positively beaming after the game.

He credited the solid team defense in front of him for limiting a strong New York offense to just 23 shots. But unlike the other night in Tampa, when every puck the Lightning shot seemed to find the back of the net — at least that’s how Mrazek saw it — the bounces went Detroit’s way in this game and Mrazek managed to get his pads on at least two pucks he never saw.

So like a lot of his young teammates, he’s just learning to roll with the punches — enjoy the highs and limit the lows. And yes, it’s a challenge for a 22-year-old.

"It’s the NHL. I’m in my first year here," he said. "I’m learning how to be ready every night, and how to prepare myself the best I can."

Brendan Smith, who scored his third goal of the season while playing with a new defensive partner in Alexey Marchenko, understood the importance of rebounding this game — and why it happened.

"It shows we’re resilient, I think," Smith said, "but we also have to complement our veterans for getting us ready. They deserve a lot of credit. It shows some maturity on the part of the younger guys, too."

After a brief stop at home to do some laundry and pick up two points in the standings, the Wings hit the road again for three games starting Wednesday at Colorado. They’re in the midst of a 15-game stretch in which 11 are on the road. And after 50 games, the Wings remain just one of two teams, along with Nashville, that haven’t lost consecutive games in regulation.

"We got off to a good start," said Babcock, who looked a little relieved himself. "But there’s lots of hockey left to play."