Brendan Smith tangles with Zdeno Chara on Sunday in Boston. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)
Detroit — It’s time to kick the Mule. It’s time for Brendan Smith to start playing pool, rather than playing the fool. And it’s probably time to stop kidding around, too.
That first part almost goes without saying at this point, as the Red Wings again find themselves waiting for Johan Franzen — with one goal in his last 20 games — to snap out of it at playoff time.
The second part was one of Mike Babcock’s chief talking points Monday, as the Red Wings shook off Game 2’s Beantown beatdown and regrouped for tonight’s Game 3 against the Bruins at Joe Louis Arena.
Asked to revisit Smith’s awkward do-si-do with Boston’s Zdeno Chara at the end of the first period in the 4-1 loss, Babcock offered up a lighthearted, pool-hall analogy, suggesting his young defenseman stick to billiards rather than boxing, figuratively speaking.
“One guy is 6-foot-9, one guy is not: What would be the good decision?” the Red Wings coach said, smiling. “I guess all I’m saying is I think you should do what you do well.”
As for what the Red Wings do well, that depends on your point of view. In Game 2, they didn’t do much of anything right — from Jimmy Howard on out — as the Bruins quickly settled the scores and then evened the series, pushing the Red Wings around a bit just for laughs.
But since Babcock and his players keep talking about their need for speed, and the advantage they insist they have in that department, they’d better start there.
Start with Gustav Nyquist and the rest of the young guns, who proved to be the difference for this team in the regular season and probably will have to now if the Red Wings are to pull off a first-round upset of the Bruins.
Tempo is key
For two-plus months, everything Nyquist touched turned to goals. He scored 23 in a torrid 28-game stretch to help carry the Red Wings into the playoffs. But the 24-year-old winger is scoreless in his last eight games dating to April 2, when he blew past Chara to score the winner in Detroit.
“Now, suddenly, instead of being a guy no one even heard of, like last year in the playoffs, you’re a guy they’ve heard of,” Babcock explained. “Space is probably a little harder to come by. You’ve just got to find your game.”
Babcock said Monday he’s neither surprised nor overly concerned by Nyquist’s drought, though he did admit, “I had a chat with him last night on the plane.”
And he was quick to compliment the play of the line featuring Nyquist and rookies Riley Sheahen and Tomas Tatar. They spent most of the first two games matched against one of the most productive lines in the NHL this season — David Krejci with Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic — and managed to hold their own.
Still, as Tatar acknowledged Monday, “We got a lesson in Game 2.”
The Red Wings got caught up in playing the Bruins’ game, goaded at times and simply coming unglued at others, picking up three roughing minors in the first period alone.
“That’s their game, right?” said Tatar, who got into it with Bruins forward Brad Marchand in one of Game 2’s many scrums. “We just have to ignore it. I know sometimes you can’t. … But most of the time, you should just walk away.”
Better yet: Run, don’t walk. Especially with the inconsistent officiating that now seems to be a hallmark of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Red Wings aren’t going to win unless they’re dictating the tempo, or at least trying to, at all times.
“We have speedy guys in here,” said Nyquist, who certainly qualifies as one. “We like to skate. We know as a team that’s one of our strengths, to really use our speed. And Boston’s got pretty big (defensemen) and a big team overall, so against a team like that you want to skate as much as possible.”
Back to what works
Speed kills, sure. But so does traffic. And understanding that is the real obstacle for young players in the NHL this time of year. Nyquist, for one, claims he does.
“Obviously, I’ll try to use my speed a little bit more and shoot the puck and try to get on the inside,” he said, when asked what has to change beginning tonight. “I’ve got to spin off those big guys and get in front of the net. That’s where the goals are gonna be scored. And that’s something I have to control, for sure.”
Now that he’s in control of the matchups on home ice, we’ll see what Babcock can do to help. I’d suggest putting Nyquist on Pavel Datsyuk’s wing, where he was for one practice day last week, at least. But whatever the case, the Wings have to find a way to turn a decided advantage in possession time into more chances against Tuukka Rask, who has stopped everything he has seen thus far.
Beyond that, we’ll see if Howard learned his own lesson after Sunday’s puck-handling gaffe gift-wrapped the first Bruins goal. If you’re asking Smith to stick to skating, not scrapping, presumably you’d ask Howard to stop pretending he’s Martin Brodeur, as well.
And who knows what we’ll see from Franzen, who was far too quiet in last year’s series with Chicago, too. Or from a laboring Daniel Alfredsson, who was held without a shot in two games at Boston.
But we saw what Nyquist and the other young forwards are capable of in the regular season. Now we’ll see if they’re able to do it when it really counts.