Krupa: Victory reveals Wings' narrow margin of success

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Minnesota right wing Jason Pominville tries to get the puck past Detroit goalie Petr Mrazek in the overtime period.

Detroit -- For a good chunk of the night, the scoreboard indicated a near-rout, on the way to a fifth straight win for the Red Wings.

But drill a bit deeper, and trouble clearly brewed.

And starting the third period with a three-goal lead over the Wild was all it took to expose the difficulties – and to remind one and all that despite a surprisingly successful season before the All-Star break, the margin for error for this lineup can remain razor thin.

The Wings won in overtime, to keep pace with the Lightning and Canadiens, atop the Atlantic Division, and the Islanders and Penguins in the conference.

At the break, they are one point behind the conference leader, the Lightning, and 13 ahead of the first team out of the playoffs in the East, as it stands, the Panthers.

Not a bad spot.

The concern?

The way they played Tuesday. The way they made things difficult for themselves.

The way a young team sometimes takes too long to learn how to close out victories in the NHL.

"Well, (it was) the sense of the game, to be honest with you," Mike Babcock said, when asked about a third-period collapse, when the Wild scored three goals in 7:20, beginning about six minutes in.

"We scored probably too easy. You know? We tipped pucks and puck went in. We were up 4-1, and we haven't really played that great, to be honest with you. And so, then you get standing around and kind of waiting, and the next thing you know, the game is tied."

They were outshot badly, and for long stretches, 10-6 in the first, 12-7 in the second and 16-11 in the third.

"They did a lot of good things, and we weren't great," Babcock said.

Razor's edge

Petr Mrazek allowed the first goal, which eluded him without benefit of a deflection or a screen. He played well for stretches, keeping his irregular team mates in the game, until he could no longer fly it solo.

Having exited the game Sunday after just six shots, Mrazek's performance was both a reminder that Jimmy Howard has been enormously consistent this season, and Mrazek has the only two wins in the shootout.

In the third period, Jonathan Ericsson sent a pass from behind his net right up the gut, and Zach Parise, perhaps the best goal scorer in the Minnesota lineup, stood right there to collect it. Parise put it by the faultless Mrazek, with ease, to tie the game.

Just 3:20 earlier, five Red Wings were alternately observers and chasers in their own zone, as the Wild controlled the puck and the play and Tomas Vanek eventually scored.

A three-goal lead can be a dangerous moment, in an NHL game for the team ahead – even more so when the team ahead really is not playing that well, despite the fat lead.

Faced with a team that has played with sound structure under different coaches for nearly a generation, and a team with some considerable speed, the Wings were hard-pressed throughout, and too quick to go to the penalty box. They failed sometimes to preserve their own defensive design and were too often ineffective, generally.

Even at 27-11-9, with 63 points through 47 games, perhaps this last game before the All-Star break is the best reminder the Red Wings could have that, despite all of their success, the season is likely to remain on a narrow edge.

"We found a way to win a game, which was really positive," Babcock said. "We won in the shootout, which was positive for our team. It's good for our guys going into the break.

"When nothing much happened this summer I was disappointed," Babcock said, referring to no signings of big free agents. "A few of my veteran players who called me were disappointed, too.

"I don't believe any of us thought we would be at this spot, the general manager and myself included. We're in a good situation."

Finding their way

But the line is thin, and one could feel it, once again, watching them toil against the Wild.

It is a tough league. It requires incredible discipline and tenacious fortitude to play the game properly and with vigor, night after night.

There are still guys learning those NHL lesson, on the roster. The roster, as a whole, is still learning to play together, the right way – the way that dictates wins, not one that is merely fortunate to score the most goals.

Even in victory Tuesday, the Red Wings learned they have a way to go yet.

Injuries would change much. But even in charge of their own fate, the Wings require a degree of precision that is exacting.

And that may be the greatest challenge, beginning Jan. 27, at Florida.

"It's not pretty all the time, but we find a way to win," said Henrik Zetterberg, who followed a hat trick Sunday with three assists Tuesday.

"When you're in those situations and you're down a few goals, when you get a goal, you've got the momentum. And that's what they did.

"And then, they got another one.

"So, obviously, we're not happy with the third period.

"We're doing a lot of good things. Compared to last year we're obviously a little more healthy. I think we're a bit deeper. Our special teams are better.

"But there's a long way to go and we need to keep playing well."