Detroit — The Red Wings should be desperate, now that they trail the Lightning 1-1 in their first-round playoff series. Wait, what? Sure, 1-1 is legally considered a tied series, but this only looks like a tied series if you're wearing a stuffed octopus on your head.
Tampa Bay has controlled five of the six periods, maybe more. And that, apparently, has turned the Lightning from solid favorites into overwhelming favorites, despite that whole tied-series issue. And despite that Tampa Bay is coming here with a coach named Jon Cooper, no relation to the Ohio State guy who used to regularly collapse in our fair state.
Of course, I'm primarily using the Cooper link as a cheap joke. But the point is, sometimes it's hard fulfilling inflated expectations against a seemingly outmanned opponent. And sometimes it's easier being the other team, the one desperate to prove it's not outclassed, riding on blown wheels.
Tampa Bay is bigger and faster and better so far, and yet technically hasn't proven a thing. The Wings used to be where the Lightning are. So why can't they do what others have done to them, counter a talent deficit with effort, concentration and goaltending thievery?
Petr Mrazek already stole Game 1, 3-2. The Wings are so determined to lift their self-esteem, they insist they played much better in Game 2, a 5-1 loss. Sorry if this chafes the sensibilities of the proud Wings, but they are allowed to swipe games as the apparent lesser team, which is precisely what they'll have to do.
"The way I look at it, there's not a lot of moral victories in the NHL in the regular season, and sure not in the playoffs," Mike Babcock said. "We're 1-1, we're home (tonight), we get last (line) change, we're excited to play Tampa. We think we're a lot better team than we showed thus far."
All three players will be in for Game 3 against the Lightning, coach says.
Spreading the offense
The Wings do have more to give (you'd hope). They'll get a major boost with Justin Abdelkader back in the lineup after he missed the first two games with an injured hand. His return allows Babcock to split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and theoretically produce scoring chances across more lines.
Babcock also reinstated mistake-prone defenseman Brendan Smith to change the fortunes of the mistake-prone defense. Hmm. If not that, Smith can provide energy and body-bashing, because back home on the Joe Louis Arena ice, the Wings need to stir up hope quickly.
Mrazek was superb in the opener with 44 saves. Then he was pulled after two periods of Game 2 when it was clear the Wings had no intention of shooing pucks — or Lightning forwards Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Ryan Callahan — away from the net.
We focus so much on the hometown goaltender, we sometimes ignore the opposition. And in 6-7 Ben Bishop, the Lightning have a 28-year-old whose body is more imposing than his history. The Wings scored three goals on 14 shots in Game 1, and while Bishop was much better Sunday, he didn't steal that game.
Bishop (.895 save percentage) and Mrazek (.906) have cancelled each other out so far, each winning his first NHL playoff game. I'm not saying the Tampa Bay goalie will buckle like he did in Game 1, but the Wings certainly can do a better job of making Bishop look like a rook. Some of that will fall on Abdelkader, who blossomed this season from a burly banger into a 23-goal scorer.
"My game's really suited for the playoffs, so hopefully I can help the team out, be physical, be around the net," he said. "As much as I can, or we can, we have to make it hard on (Bishop), make him fight for space in the blue paint, make it hard for him to try to track pucks."
Bishop had a breakthrough campaign last season but wasn't as dominant this year, although he set a Lightning record with 40 victories. And remember, this is not some deeply seasoned team. The Lightning had lost six straight playoff games — swept in the first round by the Canadiens last year with Bishop injured — before winning Game 2. And of the 16 teams in the playoffs, Tampa Bay had the worst road record in the regular season.
The Wings have lost in the first round two of the past three years, often because of defensive breakdowns or scoring droughts. Jimmy Howard's goaltending wasn't the difference, either way, but now Mrazek's goaltending has to be the difference, or it'll swing back to Howard. Mrazek is a calm 23-year-old who can make spectacular saves and mundane misses. He was pulled from a game five times this season and almost always bounced back the next outing.
"If you feel pressure, you play better," Mrazek said. "That's the way I feel. I don't think goalies are nervous. You know how to handle it, it's good to play under pressure."
Better get used to it, kid. The days of the Wings clamping down and outshooting opponents by ghastly amounts are over, for now. In two games, Tampa Bay has a staggering shot advantage, 76-38, while producing its insurmountable 1-1 lead.
This is not a series the Lightning and Bishop will have to steal. It's a series the Wings and Mrazek will get a chance to steal, if they're willing to accept the task.