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Wojo: Erratic Wings can't close the deal

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Detroit left wing Tomas Tatar takes a moment after missing a good scoring chance late in the third period.         Tatar scored twice but the Wings lost Game 6 5-2 to the Lightning Monday at Joe Louis Arena.

Detroit — It disappeared in a flash, the series lead, the control, the defensive dominance. The Red Wings had the Lightning right where they wanted 'em, on home ice and thin ice, and they let 'em loose.

That clinching party at Joe Louis Arena? Canceled due to defensive exposure and lack of composure. The Wings let up when they absolutely couldn't and fell to the Lightning 5-2 Monday night. Now this crazy series spins to its rightful conclusion, to a Game 7 in Tampa Wednesday at 7:30, because of course it should come down to one more unpredictable twist.

Apparently, it makes no difference where these teams play, or who appears to be in charge. The Wings came home after a 4-0 pasting of the Lightning and played too loose, as if they had nothing to lose. Tampa Bay's potent offense took advantage, led by the seemingly unstoppable Tyler Johnson, and the Wings spent most of the night playing catchup.

Neither team has won two straight in the series, so the Wings better hope that trend continues. It's not easy to picture them winning three times in Tampa, but they haven't done many things easily, and that's what it'll take.

"We made big mistakes, and Tampa's a team that scores when you give them opportunities," Mike Babcock said. "Any way you look at it, they can play like that, we can't play like that and win. Just because they're that skilled and they can score like that."

The Lightning grabbed a 3-0 lead on three quick rushes, one after a bad line change and another after a Brendan Smith turnover. For all the plaudits rightly earned by the Wings' defense for shutting down Steven Stamkos, who still doesn't have a goal, they've done nothing to slow Johnson, who has six.

Early and often

"It's like the bubbles bursts," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "We've been fighting to score goals, been shut out, and then to get one early, that was huge. We just had a quiet calm about us the entire night. There was no panic, never on our bench."

The Wings did rally as Tomas Tatar scored twice, and Petr Mrazek made several highlight saves, but it wasn't enough. This game was ragged, and occasionally rugged. The Wings tried to hit with force, highlighted by Niklas Kronwall's crunching of Nikita Kucherov. It was a leaping blow that probably will draw some scrutiny, but there was no penalty and no obvious injury.

It got the crowd roaring late in the second period but it didn't settle — or settle down — anything. The Lightning attacked, and could've led by more if not for Mrazek's acrobatics. His diving stick swat to rob a wide-open Brian Boyle was as spectacular a save as you'll ever see, and looked like a game-changer.

Instead, Johnson struck a few minutes later and the outlook for the Wings went from bleak to bleaker. If we've learned anything in this series, it's that anything can spin in the other direction at any moment, so what happens next is anyone's guess.

"We've been doing a lot of good things as of late, we just gotta clean up a few areas," Kronwall said. "It's pretty much the same way after the last game here, and we went down there and played a really solid game. I think we match up well against each other. Don't hang your head, stay positive, flush this one and get back at 'er."

The Wings had shut out the Lightning two of the past three games, with Mrazek outdueling Ben Bishop. That fed the festive atmosphere at the Joe, and the crowd was raucous before the first puck was dropped. The noise ebbed quickly, and the first period fit the pattern of the series — what happened the previous game has no impact on the next one.

Defense in disarray

That composed, structured Detroit defense that starred in the Game 5 victory? It was sloppy, and Tampa Bay seized immediate advantage. Less than four minutes in, Johnson took a long pass from Kucherov, slipped around Danny DeKeyser and flipped the puck over Mrazek for a 1-0 lead.

That suddenly, the Wings deflated and the Lightning offense finally inflated. This is the danger of a potential clinching game at home, that in the rush to wrap it up, unfocused emotion can trump smarts. The Wings took chances and Tampa Bay's counterattack was impressive, befitting a team that led the league in scoring.

The Wings came out hitting, and Justin Abdelkader absolutely leveled Cedric Paquette. But for all the banging, the Wings weren't getting bucks for their bangs. Midway through the first period, they made a lazy line change and the Lightning capitalized, flooding Detroit's zone. Mrazek had no chance as Jason Garrison fired the puck into a wide-open net for a 2-0 lead, and right about then, Game 7 Wednesday night beckoned.

"It's two good teams playing, it's a good series," Henrik Zetterberg said. "And it's not a big surprise for us that it goes to seven. Maybe it's a surprise for people on the outside, but we're looking forward to going to play Game 7."

The story before the game was Cooper's unseemly campaigning for interference penalties. He said the Wings interfered more than any team in the league and added, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't trying, and they do it to a T."

It sounded like the lament of a frustrated team but it served a purpose, diverting attention from Stamkos and other struggling scorers. Babcock didn't fire back, but reiterated that controlling emotions was the key. And sure enough, the Lightning came out controlled, while the Wings were ragged.

That's how it has gone for six games, with the more-determined, more-desperate team getting the spoils. As they head to Tampa for a frantic Game 7, the Wings should be desperate to make the pattern continue.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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