Bob Wojnowski and Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News discuss what happened during Detroit's 3-2 loss to Tampa.


Detroit — You make a mistake, you pay. If the Red Wings have learned anything in this series, that’s it, and it might be the bitter, lasting lesson of the season.

It’s so tight in the playoffs, the difference between expiration and exultation can be the clang of a goal post, or a lazy lapse. The Wings experienced both in a crushing third period, losing as they have too often, and now their task is beyond daunting.

The Lightning scored three power-play goals, the last by Ondrej Palat with 2:59 left, to beat the Wings 3-2 Tuesday night and push them to the brink of elimination. The Wings pushed back after trailing early but couldn’t stay out of the penalty box, and that’s a bad move this time of year.

Nikita Kucherov scored the other two goals and has five in the series, yet another sniper wearing the Wings out. The Lightning lead 3-1 and can close it out Thursday night in Tampa, and probably will unless the Wings can figure out how to score on their own power play, now a ridiculous 1-for-21 in the series.

This was a spirited game of flourishes, not fights. For all the pregame buzz about chickens and Wings, this wasn’t about who would use their fists. It was about who would use their heads, and in key moments, the Wings were lacking. Jonathan Ericsson took a bad cross-checking penalty with 4:42 left after getting caught out of position, and the real punishment came moments later on Palat’s goal.

“The last penalty was a penalty taken because of a (defensive) zone breakdown,” Jeff Blashill said. “We got to make sure we don’t take hooks. We got to make sure we don’t take easy ones and give the referees easy chances.”

Desperate rally

The Lightning actually only had five power plays, and haven’t been a great power-play team, but they were brutally efficient on this night. The Wings have had their chances, and in all three losses, they were tied 2-2 past the midway point.

This was the devastating one because they played well after a tepid start. It’s on Blashill and his staff to figure out how to make the power play better than awful. It’s an ongoing issue, yes, and maybe there’s no immediate solution, but the Lightning found answers to their struggles.

The Wings seemed to have an answer when Dylan Larkin swept in on a power play in the third period and backhanded the puck over goalie Ben Bishop. The crowd roared and the Wings appeared to have a 3-2 lead. But the puck hit the goalpost, then caromed across the crease and never crossed the line.

Tough break, but the Wings need to make more of their own breaks. They couldn’t sustain all the energy they generated in Game 3 and that’s the tale of the season, ups and downs and nothing in between.

“The power play definitely killed us, no doubt about that,” Niklas Kronwall said. “I thought we got going as we went along, but maybe not so much right at the start.”

For the first half of the game, the Wings looked flustered and the Lightning were crackling, taking a 2-0 lead deep into the second period. And then, from some unseen well of desperation, the Wings found their legs. Luke Glendening made a terrific tip of a floating puck to Darren Helm, who banged it in for the first goal. Down 2-1, the Wings were back in it, and so was the crowd.

This is how quickly these games can carom. Gustav Nyquist was called for goalie interference, giving Tampa Bay yet another power play late in the second period. This time, the Wings killed it off, and here came Nyquist out of the box and into the rush. As Riley Sheahan powered the puck along the boards, Nyquist went to the net and arrived about the same time as the puck. He slammed it past Bishop with 10 seconds left, and stunningly, the game was 2-2 headed to the third.

Paying the price

Each team got one power play in the third. The Wings had their chance and Larkin narrowly missed. The Lightning, who dedicated extra practice time to the power play, struck.

“We decided to change up our (power-play) units a bit,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We decided to put the puck in the hands of the guys who know what to do with it and challenge them.”

That’s especially important because through three games, the series featured the most penalty minutes (215), by far, of all eight first-round matchups. Animosity bred by familiarity after last year’s seven-game Tampa Bay victory? Sure, that’s how you create a nice, nasty rivalry.

Tampa Bay’s Brian Boyle tried to send a silly message at the end of Game 3 with his wing-flapping pantomime directed at Justin Abdelkader, who wisely decided not to waste a good fight at the end of a good victory. It was a classic hockey move — attempt to agitate without consequence. Abdelkader couldn’t fight Boyle because he had a finger wrapped in tape and risked a suspension.

For all the squawking, both teams know it’s not wise to skate around like chickens with their heads askew. If the Lightning had a problem with Abdelkader pummeling a prone Mike Blunden in Game 2, they’d have to take care of it another time. And if the Wings had a problem with the chicken dance, they’d have to take care of it another time.

There’s no time for foolishness in the playoffs. These teams have pushed it to the edge, and you figured Tampa Bay would adjust and recoup. They dominated early, pounding the puck at Petr Mrazek, and took advantage of the first mistake of the game. Nine seconds after Abdelkader was called for holding, Kucherov rifled it in for a 1-0 Tampa Bay lead.

It was looking fairly hopeless for the home team midway through the second period when Kucherov scored again. The Wings kept taking penalties and the Lightning kept attacking, taking advantage of miscues, such as Ericsson’s inability to clear the puck on the second goal.

The Wings power play looked especially disorganized on a second-period opportunity, when Pavel Datsyuk’s pass to the point missed everyone and slid harmlessly down the ice. There still could be a Game 6 at the Joe on Sunday, but if not, this might have been Datsyuk’s final home game, as he mulls retirement. He was right there several times, on top of Bishop, but couldn’t quite finish, and this would be a somber way for him to exit.

The Wings again struggled to stack great performances back to back, and at times struggled to simply get the puck out of their zone. We’ve seen it enough times, the sloppy defense and disjointed attack, to recognize it’s likely a fatal flaw.

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