Wings flex much-needed muscle to take series lead over Lightning

April 21, 2015

DETROIT -- Just as Karen Newman belted out the final notes of the Star-Spangled Banner, a large octopus came flying over the glass, landing with splat a few feet to her right. The Joe Louis Arena crowd let loose with a roar that intensified when Zamboni chauffer Al Sobotka swung the giant mollusk over his head.

A few minutes later, the puck dropped to begin the Red Wings home Stanley Cup playoffs opener against Tampa Bay.

And springtime in Detroit finally arrived. With it, finally, came a little bit of intensity that had been sorely lacking in the first two games of the series. Welcome back to the lineup, Justin Abdelkader.

The big winger, who missed the first two games with a hand injury, returned to lead a surprising Detroit hit parade, roughed up an opponent who took a cheap shot at his goaltender and made a pretty assist on a power-play goal to guide the Wings to a 3-0 victory.

Petr Mrazek stopped all 22 shots he faced to record the first shutout of these NHL playoffs, and Pavel Datsyuk, Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening (empty net) scored the goals to help the Wings take a two-games-to-one edge in this best-of-seven series.

"I thought we were way better tonight. We skated better and looked like a real hockey team," coach Mike Babcock said. "I didn't think we had skated the way we were capable of skating. I didn't think we had the physical play we needed to make their D turn the puck over like we could have in the first couple of games, and those things all happened tonight."

According to the official game summary, Detroit outhit the Lightning 48-26 as the intensity level finally began to approach that of most of the other heavy-hitting series going on around the league. But while this matchup may have lacked the thrilling, board-rattling pounding taking place in other NHL rinks these days, it still offers the speed, skill and precision that many of the other series lack.

"I think the more physical we play, the better we are," said Sheahan, beaming in the afterglow of his first Stanley Cup playoff goal.

Expect more of it when the series continues with Game 4 on Thursday (6 p.m. pregame, 7 p.m. face-off on FOX Sports Detroit). These teams are warming up.

"I think our series is going to get there," Wings forward Joakim Andersson said, agreeing that the intensity level in this series hasn't quite matched that of others in these playoffs. "It has to. There's so much on the line, and we're getting closer and closer to one of the teams getting eliminated."

The Lightning established an uncharacteristic physical presence in the first four minutes of Game 2, setting a tone the Wings declined to match. As a result, Tampa Bay won, 5-1, despite Detroit playing a whole lot better than it did in its Game 1 victory.

"That's one of the aspects we've tried solidify in the last two games, that we haven't had in the past, to play a little bit nasty and kind of establish the physical game, which I think we've done," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said before Tuesday night's game.

The Wings returned the favor in Game 3, led by Darren Helm pinballing himself around the ice with seven hits. Abdelkader had six. Defensemen Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith, a healthy scratch the first two games, had five each, rookie winger Landon Ferraro had four.

Before the game, Helm agreed that this series hasn't featured the belligerence and brutality of some of the other series -- but that didn't mean it would stay that way.

"It seems like the other series are be a lot more physical," Helm said. "But there's a lot more skating in this series, maybe a little bit more room compared to others. In the other series, it seems like you touch the puck and you're getting hit right away. I'm not sure if it will continue to stay like it is in this series."

It didn't. The Wings stepped into their big-boy pants and played serious playoff hockey, and as a result they're two wins away from finishing off the Lightning and moving on to the second round -- a rare occurrence since advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals as defending champs in 2009.

Cooper expects his team to put up a better fight than it did in Game 3, however.

"If I'm looking at the big picture, I don't think we've been outplayed in any of these games," he said. "We need to get a bounce. And I think if we continue to play hard, the way our group is we'll get those bounces.

"That's why it's not a best-of-three (series), it's a best-of-seven. So now we've got a taste of what it's like to play in this building, and I imagine we'll be much better in Game 4."

So should the Wings, who have won back-to-back games in regulation for the first time since Feb. 28.

Except for the series opener, when his team was outshot 46-14 but still managed to win the game thanks to Mrazek's 44 saves, Babcock believes his team has gone toe-to-toe with the heavily favored Lightning and managed to at last play even. Some of Tuesday's statistics seemed to support him.

"They had 22 (shots). We had 21. That sounds like a playoff game to me," he said. "I thought it was a good, tight game. That's what we expected, and that's the way we have to play. I thought it was a good effort by our team."

And the Joe Louis Arena audience did its part, too.

"The crowd was amazing tonight," said Drew Miller, who contributed three hits and a blocked shot in the win. "That's what you look forward to when you play in Detroit. Hockeytown playoffs. We definitely got a boost from that. And it was good to see the octopus on the ice, too."