Zetterberg, McCollum lead ’embarrassed’ Wings to come-from-behind win

Henrik Zetterberg scored a hat trick -- the first three-goal game by a Wings player this season and the sixth of his career.

Rick Osentoski

The Buffalo Sabres, those lowly NHL doormats unloved by their fans and reviled by their own media, provided a perfect and valuable teaching moment for Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, one of the league’s more cerebral mentors.

And his intermission lesson began by glaring at his players after they skated off to a smattering of boos from the home crowd who didn’t mind venting their frustrations after watching the Wings fall behind by three goals before some fans had even found their seats.

What have you done for me lately, eh?

"We were embarrassed," Babcock said of the way his team was bullied in the first period. "That’s as bad as it’s been. That’s what happens when you’re feeling pretty good about yourself and you don’t prepare like you should and you don’t compete like you should."

By most expectations, this was supposed to be a walk in the park for a team that dominated one of the NHL’s best clubs, Nashville, just 24 hours earlier. And here comes Buffalo, playing at a level of futility for a non-expansion club not seen since the 1985-86 Red Wings managed just 40 points in a 17-57-6 season.

All the Wings had to do was throw their sticks out on the ice and skate off with another two points. At least that seemed like their game plan starting off. Then the puck dropped and a bunch of guys in Buffalo Sabres uniforms — turns out they were all NHL players, too — took it to the host team in a way rarely seen this season.

With the Wings joining the rest of the spectators in another packed house at the Joe, Buffalo scored on three of their first six shots to chase Petr Mrazek from his goal and prevent him from winning his fifth straight game.

The Sabres were every bit as good as the 3-0 score indicated — and Detroit was even worse.

It was stunning, actually, especially with statistics suggesting showing how bad this Sabres team was supposed to be.

Buffalo came to Detroit after losing a franchise-record 10 straight games in regulation — which is pretty hard to do in this overtime-shootout era of the NHL. In fact, no team has done that since Pittsburgh lost 10 straight in regulation Jan. 6-23, 2006. The Sabres’ last win came at home over the New York Islanders on Dec. 27. They also had lost 10 straight on the road.

The Sabres entered Sunday’s game last in the NHL in goals, by far, and last in goals against. They were last on the power play with just 12 goals and they had allowed a league-high eight shorthanded goals. Only Philadelphia was worse on the penalty kill. Buffalo was also last in face-off percentage, and last in shots on goal — both for and against.

Then came the first intermission, and Babcock left it to his players to sort it out. That’s when captain Henrik Zetterberg stood up and said what needed to be said — and then led by example. The Wings overpowered Buffalo in the second period, when for the second straight night they opened a period with three goals on their first four shots, forging a tie in a dominating performance in which they held the Sabres to one shot in the middle 20 minutes.

In the third, Zetterberg scored a hat trick — the first three-goal game by a Wings player this season and the sixth of his career — to send Buffalo off with its record-extending 11th straight loss in regulation.

The come-from-behind effort made a winner of goalie Tom McCollum — the first NHL win in his career and the fourth Detroit goalie to register a victory this season. McCollum, 25, was appearing in just his second NHL game since Detroit made him its first-round pick (30th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Ironically, he grew up in Amherst, New York, a Buffalo suburb.

"I’m sure some friends back home aren’t too happy with me right now," he said. But the joy he was feeling after earning his first win was apparent in the grin he couldn’t restrain.

"I’m still trying to figure it out," he said. "It’s not the way I imagined it, but I’m really happy the team turned it round after I got in there."

And the Wings are happy (and more than a little relieved) that they found a way to come back for their second win in as many nights against teams at opposite ends of the NHL points spectrum. The four points put them just one behind Tampa Bay, tied with the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference Race and within five points of NHL-leading Anaheim.

Considering the lesson this young team learned about preparing properly for every team — and not just the good ones — this was a very productive weekend.