Niyo: Wings bend plenty but Mrazek doesn't break

John Niyo
The Detroit News
For Petr Mrazek, the 23-year-old Czech who was given a “huge chance” by his coach earlier in the week — named the playoff starter over veteran Jimmy Howard — this was one worth remembering.

Tampa, Fla. — He insisted with a straight face this was "just a hockey game."

And when it was over, Petr Mrazek tried his best to keep it that way, though he had to admit, with a sheepish smile, "That was a lot of fun."

But this was more than that, and whether or not it's the beginning of something big for the Red Wings in these playoffs — Friday's film review might suggest otherwise — it's a terrific start for their rookie goaltender, without a doubt.

Thursday night's 3-2 rope-a-dope win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs was hardly a masterpiece. It was not a performance they'd be wise to repeat again, quite frankly.

But for Mrazek, the 23-year-old Czech who was given a "huge chance" by his coach earlier in the week — named the playoff starter over veteran Jimmy Howard — this was one worth remembering.

Mrazek became just the ninth rookie goalie to start a postseason game for the Red Wings. Then he became a cardboard duck in a shooting gallery. (Actually, his coach said it felt like his team was stuck in a "wave pool" all night.) And by night's end, after a 44-save performance that left the Lightning players shaking their fists at the sky, he became the first rookie to win his playoff debut for Detroit since a guy named Chris Osgood did it in 1994.

That alone is something. But with his team getting outshot by more than a 3-to-1 margin — the 32-shot deficit (46-14) was the largest in a Red Wings playoff win in 50 years — this was the kind of thievery Detroit fans have come to expect from their foes this time of year.

Instead, it was the Lightning who were at a loss trying to explain this loss.

"I couldn't draw the game up any better than we played," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said.

He got no argument from his counterpart, Mike Babcock, on that count.

"If you're standing on their bench," Babcock said, "you're saying, 'We've got the puck all the time, and it's not going in.' "

Not often enough, at least.

Costly indecision

Mrazek was tested early, as Tampa Bay — eager to make amends for last year's first-round flop against Montreal — came out flying, as promised.

When Nikita Kucherov nearly connected with Tyler Johnson on a 2-on-1 rush on the game's opening shift, it was a sign of things to come.

But when Mrazek had to make a quick toe save to stop a point-blank deflection by Brenden Morrow less than 4 minutes in, perhaps that was a sign, too.

"In the first five minutes, when they shoot from everywhere and it hits you," he said, "it's a huge part of the game."

So was the game's first goal, which happened to come on the Red Wings' first shot on goal, as Pavel Datsyuk redirected a point shot from Kyle Quincey past Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop at 9:03 of the first period.

Mrazek was stuck in no-man's land on Tampa's shorthanded equalizer later in the period. Brian Boyle capitalized on an offensive-zone turnover by Marek Zidlicky, who did not have a good night, and came free chasing the puck on a breakaway. Mrazek started to charge out with the puck still above the faceoff circle, but then he thought better of it — or not — and retreated.

Boyle gained control, dangled the puck and slid it past a sprawling Mrazek to tie it at 14:31.

"I just lost sight of the puck," he shrugged.

But that was one of the few times all night it happened.

And Mrazek, who'd blanked Tampa Bay in their last meeting March 28, probably deserved an assist on the Wings go-ahead goal.

The young Czech made a strong save on Braydon Coburn's slapper from the left circle with 4:53 left in the first, then flashed his glove for good measure. A few minutes later, he flashed some of his acting skills as he came out of his crease to challenge a charging Anton Stralman. After absorbing the shot, he tipped over and embellished the ensuing collision, putting the Wings on the power play with 32 seconds left in the period.

A little help

Datsyuk's goal — "a goal-scorer's goal," Cooper said, admiringly — just eight seconds after intermission gave the Wings the lead again, but not the momentum. Because that was about it for Detroit in the middle stanza, as Zetterberg noted, "They half-iced us basically the whole period."

And another half-iced effort like that won't cut it Saturday in Game 2, they know that.

But shot totals aside, the Wings did create a few chances. And more important, they capitalized on them, as fourth-line center Luke Glendening did while killing another penalty early in the third period.

His spinning backhander froze Valtteri Filppula and then fooled Bishop, who also happened to be making his playoff debut. (In all, seven of the 16 starting goalies in the playoffs could say the same this year.) That was one Cooper admitted he'd like to have back.

And not merely because the Lightning managed to score again in the third — Nikita Nesterov's wrist shot beat a screened Mrazek with 11:34 left — ratcheting up the drama as they kept firing pucks, ultimately to no avail.

"I mean, 46 shots in a playoff game, that's pretty impressive," said Steven Stamkos, the resident sniper who finished with eight of them. "So we just have to find a way to get a couple more past this guy."

Thursday night, they simply couldn't, though.

Mrazek made what Babcock called "an unbelievable save" on Matt Carle with 3:17 left. And after the Wings had survived the final, frenzied few minutes, with Bishop pulled for an extra attacker and a phantom penalty making it a 2-man advantage the last 12 seconds, that "was the save we needed to get us the win."

And there was no getting past that.

"I think he helped us more than we helped him," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "But sometimes when you play your first game it's nice if you have a lot of shots. And he had that tonight."

Easy for him to say, right?

"Yeah," Zetterberg smiled. "Exactly."