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Wings have no answer for Lightning’s dominating line

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
From left, Tampa Bay's Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Andrej Sustr celebrate an empty-net goal by Killorn in the third period Friday night.

Detroit – A significant problem for the Red Wings is a streak of Lightning, composed of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn.

The line of Tampa Bay forwards is dominant and the Red Wings have no answer.

It was much the same last season in the playoffs, too.

This year through two games, Johnson has two goals, four assists. Kucherov has three goals, two assists. Killorn has two goals, two assists.

One line, two games, seven goals, eight assists.

The Red Wings have four goals and seven assists – as a team.

As has been the case throughout the season, the Wings certainly need to score more.

Through seven games of the 2015 playoff series between the two teams and the two games played so far in the 2016 series, the Red Wings have needed to summon a way of stopping Johnson, Kucherov and whomever is playing with them.

This season it is Killorn. Last year it was Ondrej Palat.

It hardly seems to matter.

“We have to make a big play or two more, offensively and defensively,” Jeff Blashill said, after an optional practice Saturday afternoon, gauging the status of the series.

“And then, obviously, their big line of Johnson, Kucherov and Killorn has made lots of plays. So, we need guys to step up and make lots of plays.”

Wings will bring along Athanasiou on their time, not fans’

Home ice will allow Blashill to make the last change of lines and personnel. It should give him a leg up against the Lightning coach, Jon Cooper, especially in trying to combat the super line.

“Yeah, it makes it much easier in terms of matchups,” Blashill said. “So, we’re in discussions in terms of how we’re going to match. But no matter how you match, guys have to go out and play. I think the biggest thing is execution, once you’re in those matches.”

Blashill would not say if he is contemplating any changes in the lineup, either to stop the big line or otherwise. He said he has been “comfortable” with his sextet on the defensive corps and Brendan Smith as a healthy scratch in recent games.

Both Blashill and Justin Abdelkader said a feeling among the players is that they are simply a few better plays away from turning the series, with the Lightning making those few better plays more than the Red Wings in the two games in Tampa.

“Obviously, Johnson, Kucherov, their line’s been playing really well,” Abdelkader said. “Got to find a way to neutralize that line.

“I’m not sure what our plan is yet, what lines or defensive pairs we’re going to throw at them. But we’ve got to do a better job against that line because they’ve had a successful Game 1 and Game 2.

“And it’s pretty much led them to wins.”

Johnson’s four points Friday night tied a franchise record for points in a single playoff game.

“You're learning that last year's playoffs were not a fluke,” Cooper said after the game. “Time and time again, playing in the big games, he continues to rise to the occasion. Definitely glad he's on our bench.”

Johnson talked about how focused the Lightning are, given a lot injuries, like his own, and other turmoil during the regular season.

“What we focus on the most is the playoffs," Johnson told the Tampa Bay Times. “That's what we play for, that's what we train for. That's the fun part of the year.

“It's been a frustrating year up to this point, but it's just getting ready for this.”

Blashill’s message to Wings: ‘Series isn’t over’

Andreas Athanasiou, who is getting lots of time to absorb the requirements of defensive play, up close, in the playoffs, said it is matter of denying the big Lightning line room to operate.

“You know, I think we’re giving them too much space,” said Athanasiou, whose pace can clearly match the trio, but whose complete game, the Red Wings think, remains a work in progress.

“We’re giving them too much to prevent big plays, and when you give a line like that a little bit of space, they can generate a lot of opportunities. I think if we can take away their space, it’ll be a little bit of a different game.”

Abdelkader said that playoff series are often game-to-game affairs, rather than a pattern of play continuing and momentum perpetuating the trends.

“Playoff series are always kind of game-by-game, and if we can come out and have a good start and take care of our home ice we, we can turn this momentum around,” he said Saturday. “There is still a long way to go. It’s a race to four and they haven’t clinched anything. They just took care of their home ice.”

Brown out

The Lightning announced Saturday that forward J.T. Brown will miss the remainder of the series after blocking a shot.

“If you're going to pull that unsung hero tag, he's definitely at the top of the list," Cooper said.

Brown, an important penalty killer for the Lightning, was hurt blocking a shot near the blue line in the first period Friday. He did not return to the game.

It is likely he will be replaced by either Erik Condra or Jonathan Marchessault; they were healthy scratches in Games 1 and 2.

Lightning at Red Wings

Faceoff: 7 p.m. Sunday, Joe Louis Arena, Detroit

TV / radio: FSD, CBC / 97.1 FM, 1270 AM

Outlook: The Red Wings must win to avoid a dreaded 3-0 deficit in a best of seven series. The Lightning won both games at home to start the series. ... Jeff Blashill would not name his starting goalie or say if the lineup will change. ... Jon Cooper was similarly mum. ... The Wings have now lost four consecutive games to the Lightning in the playoffs, dating to last season.