Detroit — It was over before it started, supposedly. Then it wasn't. Then it was. Then it wasn't. Now is it?
The Red Wings can end a series tonight they weren't expected to win a week ago, even a few days ago. The Joe Louis Arena crowd will be roiling and anticipation broiling, but lest anyone starts counting their octopi before they fly, a note of caution: This is such a wildly unpredictable series, who knows? Heck, Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos might even score a goal.
It's not over yet, but the Wings certainly are showing the poise and the discipline, the goods and the guts, to wrap it up in Game 6. Just don't pretend you saw it coming.
The Wings are winning with defense and goaltending, which is exactly how they were losing late in the season. They lead 3-2 because they've turned the league's most-potent offense from Lightning strikes into light sprinkles. Petr Mrazek has blanked Tampa Bay eight of the past nine periods, and if not for that six-minute defensive collapse in Game 4, he'd be working on three consecutive shutouts.
"They're so offensively dynamic, anything we can do to slow them down is huge," said Wings center Luke Glendening, a checking star. "There's gonna be a lot of emotion, and obviously the Joe's gonna be rocking. We gotta stick with our game plan and keep our emotions in check."
Such a swift shift in fortunes is hard to figure, unless you've watched playoff hockey for the past 30 years or so. From that vantage, this doesn't qualify as shocking, even though Tampa Bay entered as a heavy favorite. The Wings are doing what has been done to them, negating offense with determined, structured defense. They squeezed the life out of the Lightning 4-0 Saturday night, and by the end, there wasn't a volt of electricity left in Amalie Arena.
During one stretch of 20:14, Mrazek didn't face a shot, and when he finally had to stir in the third period, he was cool and composed. Maybe the Lightning figured they'd seized command with that stunning rally from a 2-0 deficit in Game 4. It's a mistake the Wings can't afford to make tonight, because for all their recent gains, the margins remain narrow.
"No team's been able to win two games in a row, so we gotta get our mind right and get ready for the next game," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "The biggest thing in the series is, you gotta keep getting better. We feel good about our team, and we're thankful we're home."
The Wings should feel good about their leadership, from Babcock to Henrik Zetterberg to Pavel Datsyuk to Niklas Kronwall, who are showing the way. Differences between the teams are emerging – although, again, they can disappear at any moment.
After the Wings suffered the Game 4 blow, Babcock shifted the focus quickly. He said the Lightning stole it just as the Wings stole Game 1, so a 2-2 tie was about right. After the Lightning lost Game 3, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper lamented his team's misfortune and talked about the Wings' lucky bounces.
It might have been accurate, but it's the wrong message for a team that leans so heavily on its scorers. Stamkos, who was second in the NHL with 43 goals, sounds increasingly frustrated as the Wings have hounded him and his speedy teammates all over the ice, especially in the neutral zone.
It's a formula the Wings used for past playoff success, but they've lost in the first round two of the past three seasons, and didn't appear to have the ingredients this time. Then Mrazek gained confidence and Justin Abdelkader returned from injury and Riley Sheahan started rolling, and suddenly the Wings had the forward depth to match the Lightning.
One Tampa Bay player recognizes the formula because he used to execute it.
"There's not a whole lot of room," Valtteri Filppula, the former Wing, told Tampa reporters. "We don't get odd-man rushes. They played real well, and we aren't getting a whole lot."
In the Wings' three victories, the Lightning are 0-for-16 on the power play. That's more than enough opportunities for a skilled team, unless the skill is being systematically stalked.
Predictably — and unpredictably — the Wings' feisty, lesser-known players are rising. Glendening's return was huge after slicing his right hand late in Game 4. Abdelkader has been a force since coming back, collecting nine hits in Game 5. On defense, Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and recently benched Brendan Smith have cranked up the physical play, knocking the Lightning off stride.
Since the Wings were outshot 46-14 in their Game 1 victory, the checking has tightened. The Wings have been better in net, which was always the wildcard possibility, with Mrazek outplaying Ben Bishop. But mostly, they've harassed the Tampa Bay skaters, playing the role of Lightning bugs, if you will.
"I think cutting them off in the neutral zone is big," Miller said. "They're a team that wants to play with speed and a lot of space. You take that away, they gotta figure out different ways to play. We have a veteran group, and you lean on those guys that have been through it. We're calm and prepared."
There's not much room to skate, and won't be much room to breathe tonight. The Lightning's offense can erupt at any time, and the Wings are wise to heed their own warnings. The task has grown and shrunk at the same time.
It began as a daunting challenge, and now is just one more stifling defensive effort from completion.