Let’s be honest. If the game, the series and the entire season were coming down to power plays, you wouldn’t put your money on the Detroit Red Wings. They had one of the weakest power plays in the league this year, and in this first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they seemed determined to prove the regular season was no fluke.
Detroit came into Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-for-17 with an extra man. That’s enough to make you give the extra man back. Enough to make you lock the opponent’s penalty box.
The only saving grace? Tampa Bay wasn’t much better. The Lightning was 30th in the league when it came to power plays on the road and was 1-for-14 overall coming into Game 4. So this wasn’t exactly Wayne Gretzky and a quartet of Edmonton Oilers. Not on either side.
But sooner or later, even with bad special teams, somebody tips a hand. And nine seconds into the first penalty of the night, the Lightning discovered that having five skaters against four can be, well, an advantage.
Young Nikita Kucherov, who already, at 22, has a nose for big playoff goals, took a sweet feed on a triangular set of passes through the Wings’ defense and whipped a shot into the corner of the net, past a surprised Petr Mrazek.
Tampa had a lead, and its power-play ignition had turned over.
“At some point special teams is going to come in and affect a series,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper would say.
Man, did it.
Lightning strikes again
Halfway through the second period, Tampa again got the extra man, thanks to a slashing call on Riley Sheahan. And after a bad bounce thwarted Jonathan Ericsson’s attempt to clear the puck, Kucherov, once again, got a nice pass through the Wings’ defense (sensing a pattern here?) and buried a short shot with time winding down on the penalty.
“Our penalty killing has to be better than that,” Niklas Kronwall would say.
The Wings, meanwhile, were getting nowhere with their own power play. At times, it made you wince. They couldn’t win the face-offs. They could barely squeeze out a shot. Too many passes. No luck on rebounds.
As the clock approached five minutes left in the second period, it seemed like this was going to be one about one team’s special teams being special, and the other’s being, well, less than ordinary.
But that’s what makes playoff hockey great. It makes no sense. The Wings, struggling to get some zip into their game, played the speedy rookie Andreas Athanasiou, who gets a buzz into the crowd faster than a bartender saying “It’s Happy Hour.” Playing on a line with Darren Helm and Luke Glendening (how often has THAT group been together?) he helped create a mayhem that led to an unlikely ricochet, a cross-the-box pass from Glendening, and a broom in by Helm to get the Wings on the board.
And less than five minutes later, with the rafters at the Joe rattling with noise, Sheahan chased down a puck, never gave up, took it from Tampa’s Jonathan Drouin and made a great pass to Gus Nyquist, who shot while fading back to beat Ben Bishop to tie the score, 2-2.
Third time is Tampa’s charm
To that point, you believed the weight of the Wings’ full-strength effort could counter the advantage Tampa was enjoying on special teams. In the frantic third period, young Dylan Larkin actually had a shot in close that hit the post. The red light flashed briefly, the crowd went crazy, and for a split-second, it seemed as if the Wings had come all the way back to take a lead.
But that was how long it lasted. A split-second. The ref called off the goal, said it hadn’t crossed the plane, and the score remained tied.
Until the Wings’ next penalty.
It came with less than five minutes to go, Ericsson was called for cross-checking. And you pretty much knew what was going to happen, didn’t you?
Despite the Detroit crowd urging a kill, the Lightning kept the puck alive numerous times, until it set up yet another pretty pass from Drouin to Ondrej Palat — again right through the Wings’ defense (can somebody go down and block a pass or shot maybe?) and Palat buried it with seconds remaining on the penalty.
It was perfect irony, and poetic justice, because a team that buries its power-play chances is likely going to win a series. Playoff hockey is too close to rely on full-strength goals alone.
Minutes later, it was over.
“We obviously lost the game on special teams,” Wings coach Jeff Blashill said after the loss. “…The fact that they punished us (for their penalties) is what I’m most concerned about.”
When the final light lit, the crowd at Joe Louis seemed to stand still, almost stunned. Had they just witnessed the last game of the season at the Joe? Was that it?
“We definitely didn’t have the same jump as they did,” Kronwall said. “We need to be more desperate.”
If so, here’s some fuel for the “desperate” department: The Wings are down, 3-1, going to Tampa. And they’d better pull the plug on the Lightning’s suddenly hot power play, or their own plug will be pulled for the season.