Well, it seems we have a series to dig into now. After losing 13 of the previous 17 playoff games, and scoring 2 goals or fewer in 14 of the previous 18, the Red Wings did neither on Sunday night in a Game 3 shutout victory, ensuring a Game 5 in Tampa on Thursday and seeing Jeff Blashill’s lineup changes either praised, because they had a positive effect on Game 3, or mocked because they should have taken place earlier in this series — like, you know, when it started. My ten takeaways from Game 3:
1. Petr Mrazek was quite good, yes, but the team in front of him was even better. We’ve been trying for decades in hockey with goaltenders, and baseball with starting pitchers, with advanced, and also somewhat simplistic stats, to get to the bottom of this. Do teams have a natural predisposition to play as a collective, better or worse, depending on the variables of who is in goal, and who is on the mound. Some goalies get a lot more “run support” than others. Players hate admitting these things while in the heat of the battle, but in my experience talking to players off the record while they’re still playing, and on the record after they’ve retired — there’s no question, there’s a vibe, a feel, a pace, a flow. Imagine if you played golf, even — an individual and solitary sport with nowhere to hide your mistakes if there ever was one, and you played with the same three guys every single week for a year. You’d have a consistency to it all. Then imagine one of your foursome isn’t there one week, and you pick up someone new, it would feel different, yes, but would you PLAY different.
It’s difficult to argue that Game 3 didn’t have a certain pace and flow to it for the Red Wings that was quite different than Games 1 or 2. Now, getting a lead, and not giving it right back, that’s a big part of it. The Wings had led for less than 6 of the prior 120 minutes, but to allow Mrazek to see only 16 shots, and staggeringly, only four in the 3rd period, when the Lightning needed to fire rubber at him as much as possible given the two goal deficit, it’s hard to say that’s just the change in venue.
2. That’s about as complete a “team” shutout performance as the Red Wings have had in recent memory. That’s not recency bias, the numbers actually back it up. The Wings gave up the fewest number of shots in a playoff shutout win since Curtis Joseph faced 15, and steered them all aside, in a first-round win against Nashville in 2004. Since then, there have been two Dominik Hasek shutouts, five Chris Osgood shutouts, 3 Jimmy Howard shutouts, and Mrazek’s 22-save sizzler in Game 3 against Tampa last season, and none featured under 19 shots, let alone 16. There were very few second or third opportunities off the initial shots, and despite the fact I thought, Mrazek struggled with some positioning in a busier first period, he settled and had so much less of the chaos and disorder in his crease, compared to Howard (again, not all of it Jimmy’s fault) in the prior two contests.
3. Mrazek’s performance makes both his lack of playing time, and the inconsistent play before the late March benching, a bigger mystery. Despite being the far more consistent goaltender all season long, and winning the #1 job late last season for Mike Babcock, it shocked a lot of us when Mrazek stopped getting the call to start games after being pulled in a 4-3 loss in Montreal on March 29th. The Red Wings were life-and-death for a postseason spot, and at the point they had six games left (four of them in back-to-back scenarios), and most were sure Mrazek would get the start in at least four of those six, and maybe even five. He started none of them, leading many to wonder about whether he’d tweaked a prior nagging groin injury, or whether this was the old-school “hunch” on the part of Blashill (with possible circumvention by GM Ken Holland) to go with the more highly-paid veteran instead of the 24-year old pending restricted free agent. For the record, I never have issue with general managers discussing lineups and combinations and things of that nature with head coaches. It’s a relief and notably refreshing when coaches and GMs actually ADMIT those discussions happen, because in my time covering the NHL and junior hockey, they always do. As it would turn out, Howard won the first three of those critical games (including the 30-save shutout against the Flyers) with a .953 save percentage, allowing just four goals in the three games. But headed into Game 3, he’d lost his last two regular season starts, his last five playoff starts (going back to the 2014 Bruins series), with an .862 save percentage. The time was right for the change to Mrazek, though Howard could hardly be accused of playing poorly in the first two games. It’s larger-scale but Mrazek is eight years ago and he’s their future. Howard, with 2 years of a $5.3M cap hit left, needs a fresh start elsewhere as much as anyone. He might be able to be a very capable backup on a real good team, or a solid starter on a rebuilding club. But we all know he’ll be tough to trade and get assets back. There is easily a better than 50 percent chance he’s made his last start with the Red Wings, barring a Mrazek injury in this round or beyond.
4. Brendan Smith came back, and it’d be shocking if he wasn’t back to stay. Sometimes, fans don’t have all the answers, or the knowledge. I’ve been on both sides of the fence for certain arguments. “Why does this player always play when he stinks? This player’s good – why does the coach hate him so much?” Admittedly, sometimes I’ve known the reasons behind such decisions thanks to access and my contacts, and other times, I’m as befuddled as you. Red Wings’ fans have long debated certain controversies on the blueline. Why was Aaron Ward a big part of things in 1997 on the blueline and wasn’t in 1998? Why trade for Todd Gill and then barely use him? Why did Uwe Krupp play the first two games of the 2002 playoffs against the Canucks, only never to be seen again, replaced in the lineup by youngster Jiri Fischer, and allowing Freddy Olausson to move up and be a perfect fit for NIcklas Lidstrom on the way to the Stanley Cup triumph?
There are often answers under the surface, but your guess is as good as mine for Brendan Smith’s absence. But in Game 3, he was everything his supporters claimed he would be, if allowed to return from exile, and then some. He was physical, moved the puck well, drew two penalties against Lightning forwards after the Red Wings had taken the lead, and fit seamlessly into sharing time in a pairing with two Red Wings — Mike Green and Danny DeKeyser. Though I speculated, as did others, it’d be Alexey Marchenko sitting out to allow Smith back in for his first game in 22 days, Kyle Quincey sat instead, despite having impressive analytic numbers in Games 1 & 2, and having a shot on net lead directly to one of the two Red Wings goals in Game 1. Look, the fans all want Ericsson out and Smith in. They got half of what they wanted, and sometimes half a victory is still a victory.
5. Andreas Athanasiou was a constant threat for the Red Wings — until they stopped playing him. With some actual legitimate and objective questioning for Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill about his lineups and distribution of ice time came the issue of Athanasiou, and whether he should play more. Here’s the Blashill quote after Game 2 that stirred things up:
“This seems to be a hot topic. AA is a good player who’s growing. When he left the (AHL) he was not an elite player, so to think that all of a sudden he’s going to come here and be an elite player, I think, is asking a lot of him.”
Blashill also compared Athanasiou’s AHL production with that of Tyler Johnson’s while Johnson was with Norfolk and Syracuse in the AHL in 11/12 and 12/13. Apples and oranges. There are countless examples of guys who scored at the AHL level who couldn’t find even close to the same potency in the NHL, and there are countless examples of decent AHL-level scorers who have things click and become trusted and reliable contributors in the best league in the world. I’ll admit it’s a disturbing trend for the Red Wings in recent times, and that’s the case while understandably praising their patience with bringing players along with their AHL affiliate or letting them stay playing in Europe until they can contribute. But from Ken Holland’s jabs at Anthony Mantha’s AHL contributions last season to his infamous “it’s a man’s league” in 13/14 while explaining why he kept Gustav Nyquist off an offensively-struggling Red Wings team for as long as he did, only to watch Nyquist become a league-wide phenomenon with his consistency, there’s no question, the Red Wings seem to be travelling a slippery slope between development of their young talent, and just rolling veterans out because they accomplished things a half-decade or more ago. Those who watched the declining NHL moments of Mikael Samuelsson, Dan Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, and even the few Red Wings’ accomplishments for either Stephen Weiss or David Legwand would know exactly what I’m talking about.
Either way, many were incredulous after a dazzling chance in the 1st period of Game 3, delivering the game’s first goal (credit Joakim Andersson with a fantastic assist), and being a consistent threat in his 8+ minutes in the first two periods, that Athanasiou got under one minute of ice time on two different shifts in the third period. A third period in which the Red Wings had a two-goal lead the entire time. The optics of such deployment are terrible, they just are. This isn’t about “giving in” to popular demand for Blashill, this is about utilizing a player who is creating scoring chances, and is one of the rare counters to the considerable advantages of speed and youth the Lightning do have. Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos took the words right out of my mouth in the televised post-game thoughts by their panel, saying, “if you’re this kid, you’re mad about this, and can’t figure out why it’s happening”. We can’t either, Nick.
6. The Red Wings had little issue controlling the Johnson line. If we’re going to pound on Blashill’s stubborness regarding trusting the younger and superior goalie in Mrazek, a steady and physical defender in Smith, and a dynamic offensive threat like Athanasiou, then he gets full credit for usage of a shutdown checking line in Luke Glendening, Riley Sheahan, and Justin Abdelkader. It was a rare abysmal night for Johnson and his linemates, Alex Killorn, and Nikita Kucherov. Their combined CORSI was a minus-27 (Glendening/Sheahan/Abdelkader were a combined plus-21). No player on Johnson’s line even registered a shot on goal, and Johnson and Killorn took back-to-back silly minor penalties a few minutes into a 3rd period where the Lightning trailed by two, and needed a momentum boost. It obviously never came.
7. This was Niklas Kronwall’s best game of the playoffs. Whether it was waking up Sunday morning in his own bed instead of a 5-star hotel in downtown Tampa, Kronwall looked refreshed and focused and in position during almost all of his nearly 23 minutes. For better or worse, he has to be that player regularly the rest of the series, and certainly in the next round against either the Islanders or Panthers. He played the vast majority of his 12:39 of 5v5 time with Jonathan Ericsson, and if Ericsson is going to play, this is the pairing that just works better for him, not with Mike Green. On the topic of Green, credit the Wings’ coaching for using Green strictly on offensive zone starts, and limiting areas of danger for him (as in own-zone faceoffs). Those things can get away from coaches sometimes after taking more than a one-goal lead — it didn’t, and that also is a credit to how the Red Wings’ coaches handled the game plan coming in, and adjusted as the game carried on.
8. Is all well with Pavel Datsyuk, and if not, is it going to get better? We all know the issues at hand with Datsyuk. This is almost certainly it. “It” was almost “it” last summer as Datsyuk agonized about even back with the Red Wings following last year’s Game 7 loss against Tampa. The idea of a new coaching staff and experienced veteran adds like Brad Richards and Mike Green, and the admitted begging of teammates pleading with him to return (after a 14/15 in which he made $10M in salary) was enough to bring him back, but now that we all believe we’re watching the very end of a Hall of Fame career, it’s fair to ask how much all of this is weighing on him. The fatigue and exhaustion that comes at the end of his 14th full NHL season, so many playoff games (155 and counting), all the international tournaments and obligations, and of course, the injuries. I don’t think he’s played very well in this series so far. He took quite a shot in Game 2 (leaving halfway through and then returning), but was better in Game 1, so is that the issue? Dating back to last year’s Game 7, Datsyuk is now pointless in four straight playoff games. It’s a compliment to his amazing consistency that he hasn’t gone five games without a point since the latter half of the 2003 sweep to Mike Babcock’s Mighty Ducks, and the beginning games of 2004’s first round against Nashville. Datsyuk had a lot of people early in his career questioning his “playoff performer” status, scoring just three goals in his first thirty-seven playoff games – and notably none in the 12 games in 2004, when the Wings eventually fell to the Calgary Flames in the second round. He’s done so much since then, but is there more to give left in the Datsyuk body of work? We shall see.
9. Tampa can take solace in that I’m not sure they can play more undisciplined or create less offensively. I was able to find positives to say about several of the Red Wings players after each of Games 1 and 2 (Datsyuk & Quincey in Game 1, Larkin and Tatar in Game 2, for examples), but I didn’t see much in the least from Tampa. Some of the usual consistency on the blueline from both Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison, but I’m still waiting for Victor Hedman to have a “star” game on the blueline. The danger is, it might be coming. Filppula and Drouin had a couple scoring chances each, but there’s not many other Lightning forwards you can say that about.
10. Momentum in series are incredibly overrated. It’s still Tampa’s series to lose. The Red Wings played an excellent Game 3 and Tampa didn’t. But don’t read too much into the frustrations for the Lightning at the end of last night’s game. They’re erased from memory already. This was always going to be an uphill playoff climb for the Bolts. It’s hard to go to back-to-back Cup Finals, and since 1998 when the Red Wings repeated, almost always, the Cup finalist ends up dusted off much earlier than the Cup champ. In fact, in the last five seasons, the team losing in the Stanley Cup Final has made it out of the first round twice (Philly in 2011, Boston in 2014), while the Devils in 2013 and Kings in 2015 missed the playoffs entirely, and the Canucks were bounced in the first round in 2012.
But Tampa still needs to lose a home game for Detroit to move on. Of course, fans for both the Wings and the Bolts think the second round (Isles or Panthers) are an appealing matchup, but don’t you think the team that emerges from that series will have the same thought about an uneven Red Wings team, or a Lightning team without Stamkos and Stralman? Still tons of work to do to get to that point, and the Red Wings still need to win three of the next four games.
See you after Game 4 Tuesday evening — as always, the interaction can be yours at @gbradyradio — thanks for the time!