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Niyo: Wings penalty killers zap Lightning

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — A month ago, they were "paralyzed." A year ago, they were "just awful," to use their coach's own biting assessment.

But Tuesday night, the Red Wings' penalty-killing pairs were what they were in the first half of the regular season, and what they absolutely need to be now in the playoffs: Confident.

And critical, again, as Detroit regained the upper hand in this Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, winning Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena, 3-0, despite spending long stretches – still too long, for coach Mike Babcock's liking — chasing the puck in their own end.

That partly explains the disparity in whistles thus far, with Tampa Bay getting 17 power plays to Detroit's 11 through three games. And if that continues, it'll only up the ante for the Wings' penalty killers.

But Tuesday they refused to fold as the Lightning failed to score on all six of their power-play opportunities in Game 3. It was similar to Game 1, when Tampa Bay went 0-for-7 in a 3-2 loss on home ice, with Petr Mrazek stealing the show, and maybe the game.

And though Lightning coach Jon Cooper shrugged it off as just another example of hockey being "a funny game," he wasn't really in a laughing mood afterward.

"It's tough when you go 0-fer," said Cooper, whose team is 34-5-2 this season when scoring a power-play goal. "But I thought they generated (chances) — they just didn't go in for us."

Mrazek had a big hand — or glove — in that, of course, recording his second straight shutout of the Lightning at Joe Louis Arena. (The Lightning went 0-for-6 on the power play in that 4-0 loss here on March 28 as well.)

"Petr made some good saves there when he had to," said Justin Abdelkader, who certainly made his presence felt in his return to the lineup from a hand injury. "And we played really well in front of him."

Playing for keeps

They played aggressively, too, while down a skater, or two. That's something the Red Wings got away from in a midseason funk that lasted until mid-March. And it's something they simply they never going last postseason against the Boston Bruins. After winning the road opener in a 1-0 shutout, they allowed six power-play goals in the next four games as the Bruins sent them packing.

The penalty-killing wasn't great Saturday in that Game 2 loss, either, though the first goal was hard to argue and the last came in the final 5 minutes with the game already decided.

But Tuesday it was still hanging in the balance when the Red Wings took consecutive minors barely a minute apart early in the second period.

With Luke Glendening — half of their best penalty-killing duo — already in the box for interference, Danny DeKeyser drew a delay-of-game penalty when he sent the puck over the glass in his zone. And at that point, a tie game seemed inevitable.

Yet the Red Wings managed to kill off 56 seconds of a five-on-three, with a little good fortune and a lot of effort.

Tyler Johnson had scored an early power-play goal in Game 2 when a point shot caromed off the goalpost and directly to him for the open-net rebound chance. Tuesday, his shot 14 seconds into the five-on-three glanced off the crossbar behind Mrazek. That's the "funny game" Cooper was referring to afterward.

"But I think anytime you get a five-on-three you've got to get a little lucky," said Drew Miller, who happily accepted a Steven Stamkos turnover to clear the zone soon after.

"Stamkos gave me that one," Miller said.

Surge in approval

And the Joe Louis Arena crowd gave the PK unit — Miller and Joakim Andersson, teamed with Niklas Kronwall to start — an ovation as they finished their shift. The crowd roared even more as Glendening and Darren Helm nearly produced a short-handed breakaway on the next shift, and the teams finally returned to even strength.

"That's where we get momentum, for sure, when we kill that off," rookie forward Landon Ferraro said. "Our PK was unbelievable tonight. When you kill off a five-on-three, especially a lengthy one like that, it gives you a ton of momentum. So it was a big point in the game."

They were fortunate, perhaps, to avoid a penalty shot on another botched touch pass on their own power play while clinging to a 1-0 lead midway through the second period. Kronwall felt he had no choice but to hook Alex Killorn on a would-be breakaway after Riley Sheahan's pass slid dangerously into the neutral zone.

But the referee pointed to the penalty box instead of signaling a penalty shot, and the teams played more than a minute of four-on-four hockey before Miller and Glendening were called into action again. And again they did the job, providing a lift — and ultimately a win.

"It definitely builds confidence on the bench," said Riley Sheahan, who scored the all-important second goal for the Wings on the power play at 6:42 of the third period. "You can hear the crowd cheering loud, too. And I think it takes a little of (Tampa Bay's) confidence away as well."

That's the idea, of course: Sometimes in the game of hockey, less really does mean more. And while the Red Wings would prefer not to rely on it, it appears they've remembered what it takes to win short-handed.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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