Even before his team completed one of the most impressive road trips recent memory, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock had seen enough to know one thing: "Mental toughness is a beautiful thing."
So is great goaltending, and the Wings got both Saturday. With third-period goals from rookie Alexey Marchenko and Tomas Tatar, 37 saves from backup Jonas Gustavsson, the Wings earned a thrilling 4-3 victory over the NHL-leading Nashville Predators.
Detroit was playing its sixth game in about 7 1/2 days against some of the best competition in the league and came home with a 4-1-1 record. Every game was decided by a single goal. They overcame third-period deficits in their final two games of the trip.
Drew Miller, playing his 400th game as a Red Wing, scored one goal and assisted on another by Brendan Smith to give Detroit a 2-0 lead. But the big, fast and ornery Predators stormed back with three straight goals in the second to take a one-goal lead heading into the final period. For much of the game, it looked as though Nashville’s intent was to pound the Wings into submission.
But the Wings would not submit, even though they lost their motor, Darren Helm, to an upper-body injury early in the first period, when his head crashed into the side boards on a big hit. Also missing again were captain Henrik Zetterberg (head) and Kyle Quincey (foot), one of their most reliable defenders.
"I thought we had a gritty effort again," Babcock said. "Every game was by one goal. We lost Helmer early after losing Q and Z, and that made it a little harder. But our team gutted it out."
Tatar’s game-winner was his team-leading 25th goal, and it came on a fortuitous bounce. He was trying a backhanded pass to teammate Pavel Datsyuk from the rim of the crease, and the puck caromed in off a defender’s stick with about 11 minutes remaining.
"I got unlucky before when I missed an empty net," he said. "This time I try to pass the puck and it goes in."
Then the Predators stormed back, especially on a power play late in the game. With Smith in the penalty box and Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne out of his net for an extra attacker, the Predators set up a shooting gallery in the Detroit zone. Shea Weber, one of the league’s most dangerous offensive defenseman, set up at the top of the left face-off circle and wound up for shot after shot.
Enter Gustavsson, coming off an outstanding effort in a 1-0 loss at Los Angeles earlier on the trip.
"I thought he did a real good job again for us," Babcock said, "Especially with Weber bombing away on the power play."
Said Gustavsson: "That’s the fun part of being a goalie, when you’re up one goal and they’re pressuring. We’ve got four or five guys out there and everyone is just battling their ass off. It’s just fun being in that situation."
The choice of Gustavsson in goal was a curious one. This was just his second game since missing nearly three months with a shoulder injury. And starter Jimmy Howard hasn’t exactly been overworked after missing nearly five weeks with a groin injury.
A cynic might suggest that the Wings were showcasing their backup with Monday’s trade deadline. And if that was a case, Gustavsson gave his team another valuable commodity.
While all the talk has been about the need for a right-shot defenseman, don’t be surprised if the Wings pull the trigger on a deal that brings a forward with some size after watching opponents take runs at some of their best players, such as Zetterberg and Helm.
With the victory, Detroit (35-15-11, 81 points) rose to a season-high 20 games above .500 and again pulled to within a point of second-place Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference. It also gave the Wings a 16-3-3 record against the Western Conference this season.
Nashville (41-15-7, 89 points) had been 26-3-1 at home this season until back-to-back losses to Minnesota and the Wings. That left Detroit as the only team of 30 in the NHL that hasn’t lost consecutive games in regulation this season. The Wings and Predators also are tied with the fewest regulation losses in the league at 15.
Now the Wings have a few days off to recover, lick their battle wounds and perhaps tweak the roster a bit. They don’t play again until the New York Rangers visit on Wednesday.
But of this we can be certain: These young, fast, skilled — and mentally tough — Red Wings are giving this city a lot to be proud of this season.