May 28, 2013 at 5:12 pm

John Niyo

Brendan Smith's rookie miscues emerge at worst time for Wings

Detroit — Brendan Smith's growing pains are causing Red Wings fans all sorts of stomach pains.

And now here comes the real ulcer-inducer: Another Game 7 on the road.

Only this time, unlike the last time against Anaheim, it's the pre-series favorite — the Stanley Cup favorite, for that matter — that's rolling into it with the momentum.

The Wings set themselves up for another heart-stopping, winner-take-all game Wednesday night in Chicago with another third-period collapse Monday at Joe Louis Arena. And while the real culprit might've been a furious finish to the second period by Detroit that couldn't build a bigger cushion, the collapse didn't officially start until Smith lost his man just before the Wings lost their lead — and maybe the series — in the opening minute of the third.

There was Michal Handzus, alone in front of the net with the puck for what seemed like an eternity — thanks to Smith, the rookie defenseman who'd let him loose — before banking one in off the far post behind Jimmy Howard. Smith's immediate response was telling: A what-have-I-done glove to his own helmet as the Blackhawks celebrated the tying goal.

Nearly 5 minutes later, it was Smith again at the center of a Chicago celebration, after Bryan Bickell scored the go-ahead goal by getting position on Smith in front of the Wings' net and holding it a bit too easily. Afterward, Smith tried helplessly to pry his stick out from under Howard, and the goalie, clearly disgusted, eventually just tossed it aside.

It has been that kind of postseason for Smith, the 24-year-old playing a significant role in his first Stanley Cup playoffs. And not surprisingly, it has been that kind of postseason for the Wings, who are — by their own choice, it should be noted again — relying heavily on a handful of youngsters like Smith this spring.

Is it any wonder they've been outscored by a 2-to-1 margin (20 goals to 10) in the third period in the playoffs?

"I don't have a good answer for that, to be honest with you," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said, when asked to explain that ugly disparity.

But his coach, Mike Babcock, didn't hesitate to offer one.

"We made some young mistakes in the third period and they ended up in our net," he said.

And though his teammates refused to single him out, there was no hiding the fact it was Smith who got beat twice in Game 6 when the Wings could least afford it.

"We lost some guys in d-zone coverage," said Kronwall, one of the team's assistant captains. "But you know what? We win as a team, we lose as a team. …

"Overall, I thought he made a lot of good plays out there. There were some mistakes as well. But that's just part of the process. Smitty will be just fine. He'll regroup like the rest of us."

With an elimination game looming less than 48 hours later, that's all Babcock, who has been one of Smith's staunchest defenders this spring, was interested in talking about after the game, either.

"You can't give away gifts," Babcock said, at least calling those third-period goals out for what they were. "But how do you get miles on you? You get miles on you by making mistakes and learning from 'em. We had some frustration from the (defense), we had some frustration from Howie. That's just a waste of energy and time. We made the mistake; let's just get on and play.

"But (the mistakes) are all part of having young guys. Young guys make some mistakes. They learn from them and they get better."

How well and how soon? We'll see Wednesday night, perhaps.

But there's no telling right now how Smith, who didn't speak to reporters after the game, will respond, even if Babcock has repeatedly praised his ability to live and learn.

"He knows we think he's a good player," Babcock said prior to Game 6, "so when he makes mistakes and you talk to him about it, it's not the end of the world."

It's not the end of the world, obviously. It's not the end of the season yet, either. But after the way this one slipped away Monday night, it sure felt like it.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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A defensive breakdown led to Michal Handzus' goal 51 seconds into the third period, which ignited the Blackhawks' rally. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News
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