Detroit — The change of scenery certainly helped. But a few lineup changes did even more as the Red Wings marked a milestone and then marked their territory to give themselves a fighting chance in this first-round playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
And it was those new faces in new places — even in this old, familiar setting — that gave the home team some hope Sunday night after 2-0 victory in a must-win Game 3 at Joe Louis Arena.
The return of defenseman Brendan Smith set an early tone for the Red Wings and Andreas Athanasiou’s ice-breaking goal highlighted a dominant second-period effort, while a newly concocted checking line made it all count.
Petr Mrazek pitched another shutout — his third in eight career playoff games, something only Terry Sawchuk and Normie Smith had done in franchise history – but he had it far easier than Jimmy Howard did to start this series. The Lightning managed just 16 shots on goal all game — seven in the final two periods — prompting their coach, Jon Cooper to joke afterward, “I know they switched goaltenders, but I don’t know if they even needed a goaltender, to be honest.”
Honestly, this was the kind of game only the die-hard fans would’ve guessed the Red Wings had in them after watching the first two games in this series.
“Tonight, I thought we were real complete,” coach Jeff Blashill said.
And now instead of an elimination game Tuesday night, they’ll be trying to even things up.
"It went from us pinning them up against the wall to now it's a series,” Cooper said.
By the sound of it, the sellout crowd of 20,027 at Joe Louis Arena wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Red Wings celebrated their 25th consecutive playoff appearance with a pregame video that hit on all the highlights — and highlighted all the hits — from their Stanley Cup runs of years past. Some might call it a streak, but in Detroit it’s called “tradition,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said, to rousing cheers. Then Darren McCarty took a lap with a commemorative flag, the giant octopus descended from the rafters and a few fans tossed real octopi over the glass during Karen Newman’s rendition of the national anthem.
“Our fans were fired up tonight,” Smith said.
So was he, obviously. And it was the new guy in the lineup — Smith, finally freed from captivity — who ratcheted up the intensity on his first shift. He’d seen the Lightning take the fight to the Red Wings in the first two games, and thought, “maybe I could help out.”
He wasted little time trying, leveling Cedric Paquette — one of the guys talking retribution after Friday’s fight-filled finish to Game 2 — with a clean, hard shoulder check in the corner on his first shift, much to the fans’ delight.
Smith, 27, had endured a similar wait a year ago as a healthy scratch for Games 1 and 2 in Tampa. And it seems inexplicable that was asked to do it again this year – Sunday was his first game since March 26 — on a blue line that’s starving for his skills. But it’s safe to say he’s back for the duration in this series.
“He gave us a huge lift,” forward Justin Abdelkader said. “He’s a defenseman that comes out, he plays hard. He plays the type of hockey that in the playoffs is important.”
So does Athanasiou, in this day and age, though it sounds as if Blashill still needs some convincing, reiterating again Sunday night that what he likes best about the 21-year-old speedster is “that he’s got the ability to play less minutes and still make an impact."
As for what he could do with more, time will tell. Ice time, that is. But for the Wings, who’d led for less than 6 minutes in the first 120 minutes of this series, it was Athanasiou who finally broke the ice Sunday.
The Wings had their share of chances early. Tomas Tatar missed the net on a 2-on-1 rush. Gustav Nyquist had a prime chance blocked by Victor Hedman’s stick in the slot. Even Athanasiou shot one over the net, though that attempt came after full-speed spin move and deke that sent Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison sliding out of the picture.
“If he would’ve scored on that, that would’ve been unreal,” Blashill laughed.
The power plays — again — were no laughing matter for his team, though.
Consecutive tripping penalties by Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat gave the Red Wings 59 seconds of a 5-on-3 advantage late in the first period. But Detroit frittered that away with another confusing shift — with Brad Richards manning the point, the coaches seem to be missing the point, don’t they? — and finished it with just two shot on net.
They did the same — less, actually — with back-to-back power plays early in the second period.
Go figure, then, that it was the fourth line that finally buried a chance. Fourth-line center Joakim Andersson, who played all of 5½ minutes Sunday, got kicked out of the faceoff circle but then did the dirty work in the corner before sending a rolling puck to Athanasiou, who one-timed it past Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.
“The old knuckle puck,” Athanasiou said. “You never know where it’s going to go.”
Where it went from there was a complete reversal of the previous two games, with the Lightning taking penalties out of sheer frustration — a dozen in all Sunday — while generating little, if any, offense. Blashill’s newly concocted checking line of Luke Glendening, Riley Sheahan and Abdelkader took down Tampa’s top line of Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn, a trio that’d scored seven of the Lightning’s eight goals in the series. Sunday, that line couldn’t even get a shot on net, let alone a goal.
And the winning goaltender couldn’t have been happier about all of it, which led to another comical finish, including Tampa’s Brian Boyle mocking Abdelkader for smartly turning down a fight in the final seconds.
But there was also the scene in front of the Detroit net, when Braydon Coburn cross-checked Smith to draw a stupid penalty that effectively sealed the win for the Red Wings. But only after Mrazek grabbed Smith from behind to prevent a retaliatory penalty.
“It’s a new day,” Mrazek had said earlier Sunday, “and a new game.”
By the end of the night, it sure felt like it.