Wings snatched defeat from jaws of victory in Game 4

All of sudden, it was a terrible turn of events that tied the series

They were six minutes from a stranglehold grip and then, like one of those movies where the hero gets distracted by someone screaming, the Red Wings loosened their hold just for a moment.

And got sucker punched.

Shish. Boom. Bang. A goal on a great individual effort. A goal on great team passing. A goal in overtime to pull down the curtain.

And a tie series.

“Never a doubt, was there?” joked Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.

Not funny, pal.

Fortunes change. The Wings, still rubbing their eyes after this 3-2 overtime stunner, are heading to Tampa Bay minus home-ice advantage, minus the health of a key player and minus the confidence they would have had in this first-round playoff series if they had been able to finish what they started — or somehow hid the puck for the final six minutes, once the hugely valuable Luke Glendening left the ice with a hand injury.

Instead, it’s a best-of-three now against a team that, as Cooper put it, “grew a couple of inches.”

Let’s face it. Ever since getting to the Motor City, the Tampa Bay Lightning was like, well, Lightning in a bottle. Except it wasn’t being caught.

It was trying to get out.

Consider that accomplished. That bottle is in pieces. The Lightning scored three in goals in less than eight minutes to end the game Thursday night. It was like the ark being opened in those Indiana Jones movies, like a lid blowing off a manhole, like a dragon testing if it had bad breath.

Here, suddenly, with its season on the line, was the Tampa Bay quick-strike fans had been hearing about but missing for days. The Lightning scored so fast, a pinball machine couldn’t have kept up.

The final goal came on an odd-man rush just 2:25 into the overtime, with Tyler Johnson taking a ricocheted puck off Petr Mrazek and directing it just inside the net. He’d had a shot like that in Game 3, on a power-play opportunity.

He missed that time.

Not this time.

Fortunes change.

Lightning catches fire

“We made some mistakes at the end,” admitted Wings coach Mike Babcock, “and they capitalized on each one. (To that point) they hadn’t got much done, to be honest with you.”

But that’s why they play 60 minutes. Johnson started the comeback with a goal at 14:34 of the third period, outmuscling Darren Helm as he swooped in on Mrazek. Until then, Tampa Bay had been 0-for-Detroit, having been shutout in Game 3 on Tuesday and trailing, 2-0, in Game 4. People were readying the obituaries for Stevie Yzerman’s fast-moving but unproductive squad.

Fortunes change. It was no accident that Johnson scored that first goal, or had an assist on the next one less than 90 seconds later (which tied the game) or netted the game-winner with nobody on him in overtime — and all of it happened once Glendening left after a nasty takedown by Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn.

At the time it just seemed like one of those scrums that happen when a hockey game is slipping away. Glendening laid a hit on Johnson, which started it, and as the teams engaged, Killorn went after Glendening as if he came with a giant teddy bear prize.

When the bodies separated, Glendening was walking into the locker room with a cut hand. And the Wings’ defense was never the same.

“How big was that?” a reporter asked Cooper.

“Very astute observation,” Cooper said. “There’s not a lot of guys out there like Glendening. He’s done a heck of a job on our guys.”

With Cut Hand Luke out of the game, Johnson was suddenly Wilt Chamberlain with Bill Russell home in bed. Two goals and one assist in less than eight minutes? Come on. You’e gonna tell us that wasn’t the reason?

“That’s just the way the game goes,” Glendening told the media afterward. “He’s a dynamite player.”

As for Luke coming back for Game 5?

“I’m optimistic,” he said.

Fortunes change.

It’s off to Florida

It was that kind of night down at the Joe. Great start, lousy finish. At first it felt as if tradition and experience were worth as much as any regular-season record. The Joe Louis Arena crowd was raucous. The stands were dotted with Detroit Tigers players rooting on their owner’s other team. (Miguel Cabrera in a Wings jersey looked surprisingly … hockeyish.)

Let’s face it. We know how to do playoffs here. And it seemed like atmosphere was playing a huge part in the Lightning’s inability to get its act together. Lightning players looked tentative on their skates and jittery when they had scoring chances. They took some dumb penalties — including two by Ben Bishop, their tree-sized goalie, who also put the puck in his own net with an acrobatic kick, poke, hit the crossbar and bounce in move that couldn’t be replicated if NASA engineers tried it.

Tampa Bay was on the ropes. And then came Glendening’s injury and those last six minutes of regulation — and the quick death in overtime. And all the other good bounces that had gone Detroit’s way were negated.

“I thought they stole tonight’s game,” Babcock said. “Kind of like we stole Game 1 in their building, to be honest with you.”

Larceny begets larceny. The Lightning will be glad to return to that building Saturday, where it has been great. The Wings, meanwhile, will try not to think that they just blew their best chance, and will instead remember the mantra of this stunner.

Fortunes change.

They can change back.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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