Five keys for Red Wings to beat Lightning

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings have played the Lightning well enough to win two of four games this season, but their inconsistency makes prevailing in a seven-game series a tougher task.

The Wings will have to string together a long series of strong periods if they are to be competitive enough to win four games.

They have not had many seven-game stretches like that this season, let alone against teams as capable as the Lightning. Their best performance is not constant enough.

With top scorer Steve Stamkos and top defenseman Anton Stralman out for the series there is some advantage for the Red Wings. But all of the elements of their finest execution must be in place for them to stand a chance of playing in the conference semifinal.

Intensity and perseverance

The Wings’ preeminent strength is their character. It allowed them to make the playoffs while playing the most one-goal games in the league, and withstand a harrowing stretch that nearly ended the longest active streak of postseason appearances in the four major sports.

But even with their character, intensity and perseverance have lagged this season, often in puzzling ways.

The first period of the final game of the regular season against the Rangers is but one example. The Red Wings were not competitive, let alone fierce.

In the previous game against the Bruins, when the Red Wings managed only 15 shots with the season on the line, they were greatly affected by the lateness of the season and a big, emotional win against the Flyers 20 hours earlier. But the Wings need more fortitude than that if they are to vanquish the Lightning.

And far too often this season, a goal against them or a goal of their own overturned by replay has resulted in the Wings withdrawing into a shell.

The playoffs afford a new start. The sort of passion that generates constant assertiveness is, for the Red Wings, at a premium.

Goaltending

Always big in big games — especially playoff games — it is even more so this season. The Wings have alternated between Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek, and the Lightning’s big Ben Bishop has been among the best in the NHL.

Howard will have to roughly match Bishop’s performance, and probably steal a game or two. The Wings have had trouble generating offense this season and their defense has been inconsistent.

Howard has found his game again at the end of his most challenging season as a professional. If his game is like it was in 2013 when he shined in series against the Ducks and Blackhawks, nearly carrying the Red Wings to the conference finals, that will be of considerable advantage for the Wings.

Team defense

The forwards have to help, and it is instructive that some of the defensemen said they feel they finally received the best support in the 3-0 victory over the Flyers last Wednesday.

But most of the responsibility lies with the defensive corps.

Hard-pressed throughout the season, the defense is still lagging four seasons after major departures cost the Wings three of their top four defensemen.

It was telling that Niklas Kronwall, whose play has declined this season, said with just two weeks left on the schedule that a persistent problem was the defense pairs not communicating enough on the ice to straighten out coverage issues.

They must improve in this series if the goalies are to stand a fighting chance.

Turnovers

The Red Wings giving away the puck a half-dozen times in a period is a recipe for disaster.

They simply do not have the defensive ability or offensive capacity to erase too many mistakes.

Controlling the puck in the defensive zone is particularly important. But the very best defense is maintaining possession in the offensive zone, and the Wings have had trouble doing that for significant stretches of the season.

Puck possession had been part of their brand for a long stretch of the 1990s and 2000s. Not so much these days.

Own the offensive crease

Just as the Wings need strong defensive structure to keep forwards away from their goalies, they need to descend upon Bishop.

Jeff Blashill calls it “getting above” the opponents’ defense. Among others, Justin Abdelkader, who must do a lot of the work, talks about “owning their crease.”

If you start seeing Red Wings consistently behind the Lightning defenders with consistency, that will be their best shot at beating Bishop.

It requires strength, guile and determination and produces the sort of “dirty” or “greasy” goals that so often mean the difference in the playoffs.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/greggkrupa