Well, extremely long odds now for the Red Wings to be headed into a second-round matchup with either the New York Islanders (man, would that have been intriguing) or the Florida Panthers (slightly less intriguing). And is it all because the puck on Dylan Larkin’s backhand lob bounced off the right goalpost at just slightly the wrong trajectory and stayed out of the net behind Ben Bishop, with under eight minutes left. Can’t alter that time-space continuum thing, can you?
Here’s my ten takeaways from Game 4, with elimination looming in Tampa on Thursday night:
1. Anything the Red Wings can draw encouragement from historically, being down 3-1? Truth be told, not terribly, no. The Wings have only come back from 3-1 down twice, first in 1987 against the Maple Leafs (when a goalie change from Greg Stefan to Glen Hanlon after Game 2 did the trick), and in 1992 against the Minnesota North Stars, with the famous Sergei Fedorov 1-0 OT winner in Game 6 in Bloomington that went in, play continued with no goal call, and then went to video review.
Since then, the Red Wings have been down 3-1 in a playoff series six times and are 2-4 in those Game 5’s, be they at home or on the road. Their most recent win in such circumstances, was the Game 5 win in the 2nd round series against San Jose in 2011, when they mounted a comeback from 3-0 down to force a Game 7, only to lose that deciding game, 3-2. A lot has changed in five years.
2. The three best offensive players in the game played for the other team. Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson. All better than any Red Wing forward in Game 4. They possessed the puck much more frequently than in Game 3, and hemmed the Red Wings in their own zone, like dogs chasing cars, for long chunks of this contest. The opposite never held true, and despite the absence of Anton Stralman, this game showed again how deep and how strong and well-positioned the Lightning blueliners usually are. They haven’t had great games by Victor Hedman in these playoffs, not by any stretch, and he hasn’t played nearly as well as he did last year in the first-round win over the Red Wings, but he hasn’t had to. Yet, Hedman swallowed up a remarkable 30:02 of icetime last night, allowing Taormina to barely play at all, and Nikita Nesterov to be sheltered, time-wise also, looking as steady as he’s looked in this series, playing just over eleven minutes. Coburn and Garrison have looked better, but were good enough to not be culpable in a road loss.
3. The Red Wings lost a home playoff game without giving up an even-strength goal. It’s a rare thing when it happens, but this is why Petr Mrazek, and more than likely, Jimmy Howard if it was him playing last night, kinda sorta get the free pass when it comes to the loss. The first two Kucherov PP goals were quick releases, and Mrazek, on the first one, anyway, as already committed in another direction, pads on the ice, and couldn’t slide across in time to make the stop at the right post. You have to feel for Mrazek, who came in with his team facing a 2-0 uphill climb, the rust of having played so little recently, the pressure and angst of the home fans, who’ve gotten quite used to early playoff exits, and all he’s done is come in and and stop all 34 of the even-strength shots he’s faced. It’s hard to ask more, and if Larkin makes it 3-2, and the Wings can play with a little more protective sensibilities in the last several minutes, knowing they have a lead, especially after the Ericsson penalty, he’s a hero again, but it’s safe to say not every Red Wings fan this morning can appreciate he’s done everything that could be expected in relief of Jimmy Howard, who was neither great nor terrible in the first two games.
4. Henrik Zetterberg was quite hard to find last night. Or if that statement doesn’t necessarily ring true, it’s easy to clarify it and note the Tampa Bay Lightning found him very easily and neutralized him. Zetterberg had few flashes of the proven playoff performer and threat across all 200 feet of the ice in Game 4, generated only a solitary shot on goal (which I couldn’t even track down in my memory, or watching chunks of the game this morning). I mean, what can he do, and what can WE say? Time has caught up to the 36-year old Zetterberg. This is a world-class athlete and all-time Red Wing great, and maybe we’re used to the likes of a 38-year old Steve Yzerman, or a 41-year old Igor Larionov delivering massive Red Wing playoff moments, but this doesn’t seem as much in the cards for Zetterberg, and we’re all beginning to accept this. He’s overmatched often in terms of strength, and speed, and sheer will (though it delivered the Game 3 goal that bounced in off both his skates) only takes you so far. Don’t get me wrong, he hasn’t had a bad season, and given his back issues over the years, you’ll take a 50+ point regular season now in all circumstances from him, but ask yourself this, if he wasn’t under contract, and, yet, wanted to be back as a Wing, would you sign him for $7.5M? Or even the cap hit of $6.1M next season? Is that good usage of the money for the Red Wings going into the future? Or is it a drain and you’re limiting the potential growth for your younger players? The Vancouver Canucks aren’t there yet, but they’ll be asking the same internal questions about both the Sedin brothers in the next 120-160 NHL games? Put it this way, you’re not expecting much from Zetterberg in Game 5, are you? And if there’s a goal or a couple assists on the way in Tampa Thursday, it’s more a pleasant surprise, than a reasonable expectation.
5. Praise needs to be given for the games of Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening. Sometimes playoffs are about moments, and not necessarily entire bodies of work in games or series. Give the aforementioned players their due when it comes to moments. Both had hard-working, yet skilled, picturesque assists on the Red Wing goals last night. Glendening finding Helm for the 1-1 equalizer, and Sheahan doing fantastic work along the wall, with the clock a factor, and finding Gustav Nyquist for the 2-2 goal right before the end of the second period. There’s obviously far more potential in Sheahan, who’s three years younger, and had to push veterans aside a couple years ago, in essence, to get regular NHL minutes, but Glendening has found his role also, and as much as he gets picked on by pockets of Red Wings supporters, if Detroit waived him this summer, a bunch of teams would line up to sign him to a very rational and affordable deal and use him as a primary penalty-killer.
It’ll be a very fair indictment of the Red Wings and their coaching staff, that though we can’t be sure they’ve done nothing to fix it in these playoffs, we CAN be sure after it’s continued to be utterly hopeless, that they’ve done nothing to change the personnel who play on the PP units. And, that, on its own, is indefensible. There really shouldn’t be a power-play unit for the Wings that includes Justin Abdelkader at this point, let alone be receiving the SECOND-MOST PP usage minutes on the team in Game 4, and two entire minutes more than Dylan Larkin. The Red Wings are now 2-for-36 with the man advantage dating back to, and counting the final three regular season games. I’ve wrote about it before — there’s this misconception that speed isn’t helpful on your powerplay, thus, you can clog it up with Richards, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Kronwall. No! Don’t do that! Every first and second stride matter — if your five powerplay guys are an average age of 35 and the four penalty killers on Tampa (including Hedman, usually, who’s reach with the stick makes it seem like he’s holding a telephone pole) are an average age of 25, that does matter. How could it not? Players as quick (and skilled) as Tomas Tatar and Andreas Athanasiou should have been worked into the special teams mix ages ago. It’s too late now, and Blashill will face a world of noise if he plays “kids” in Game 5 in key situations and man advantages because it will be plainly offered up to him that it should have been done weeks ago. So don’t expect things to change.
7. It got utterly embarrassing for the pairing of Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson. It’s enough on it’s own than Kronwall is probably in the midst (or near the end) of his worst-ever playoff series as a Red Wing. And that’s too bad, he’s a veteran of 108 NHL playoff games, and had a five-season stretch from 2008 through 2012 where he was incredibly reliable, made his partners better, was a threat to explode with a heavy hit on a forward, and you didn’t hesistate or cringe in knowing he’d be fine handling anywhere between 22-25 minutes of time. Now? Oh, my. It’s hard, we all know it. We’re feeling it with Zetterberg, as I noted above, and we certainly are with Datsyuk (I won’t pick on Pavel, but the ship has sailed, there isn’t anything left to give in a Red Wing uniform — I’m not even sure the KHL team he’ll play for next year will be getting a very effective player in THAT league), and Kronwall isn’t much different. Pair him with Jonathan Ericsson, and when the Red Wings’ “Big E” is having one of his nights where little goes right, and it’s a rough one. Eventually, even the Red Wings’ coaches couldn’t submit their other players, nor themselves, to regular shifts for Ericsson, limiting him to just 13:23 of icetime, after the previous three games saw him average 19:09 of time. And, OF COURSE, it would be Ericsson to take the cross-checking penalty late in the third period allowing Tampa’s game winner to occur. Do I think Ericsson sits in Game 5, even if Marchenko is perfectly healthy and can be brought back in? No, I don’t. Because the organization is moving forward with Ericsson, because doing otherwise acknowledges the utter embarrassment of giving this player $25.5M over six seasons, and because he’s good friends with Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall. Wonderful.
8. Is the Ericsson contract the worst in the NHL, with the obvious exception of David Clarkson in Columbus? Ericsson is owed $4.25M each year over the next four seasons. Clarkson is owed four more years also at a cash total of $22M, but a cap hit of $5.25M. To refresh your memory, Toronto traded Clarkson halfway through his second season for a player in Nathan Horton, who is never expected to put skates on ice in a competitive circumstance again. Columbus gets a player (sort of) and the Leafs get cap relief, can put Horton on LTIR and pay off his uninsured contract over the next few years. There’s an explicit understanding, basically, among the Jackets and Leafs management when the deal was made that the Clarkson deal is terrible, but Columbus wanted a healthy body, and the Leafs wanted an unhealthy one that didn’t count against the cap. Meanwhile, Ericsson and the Wings? Whistling past the graveyard, brother. Yes, there are contracts of very good players in the next few seasons where the last couple years will be a bit of an unseemly pill to swallow, right? There always are — Detroit’s dealing with two in Zetterberg and Kronwall, in essence. The Kings have Dustin Brown, the Panthers have Dave Bolland, the Caps have Brooks Orpik. But these are players that have accomplished big things in the NHL, found themselves ripe for new paydays or extensions, and cashed in. Not really a fair comparison for Ericsson, is it? Though the Red Wings have been quicker to remedy mistakes like Carlo Colaicavo, Stephen Weiss, Jordin Tootoo, the second comings of Bertuzzi and Samuelsson — there just doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgement whatsoever of Ericsson’s shortcomings.
9. This is where we mention again — Tampa is pretty good. Yes, it helps any organization getting Stamkos at #1 and Hedman at #2 in consecutive seasons. But beyond that, Steve Yzerman has really done something amazing in his six seasons on the job. Mistakes are quickly acknowledged and moved on from. Free agents (like Val Filppula and Brian Boyle) are signed astutely and without overpaying. Jason Garrison’s value was at a low ebb in Vancouver, and the Lightning acquired him, and he’s turned his career around. Yzerman flipped Radko Gudas, a 1st, and a 3rd for Braydon Coburn from Philadelphia, and got incredible results from him in last year’s playoff run to the Cup Final, and he’s been signed to a very affordable $11.1M/3 year extension. We know the Tyler Johnson story. A great 2011 Draft saw Namestnikov, Kucherov, and Nesterov all hit the big time, and the trade for Ben Bishop, now a proven franchise goalie, was an utter fleecing of Bryan Murray in Ottawa, where the Sens have just fired yet another coach, and aren’t quite sure who will start in goal the next time they make the playoffs.
10. Steve Yzerman and Jonathan Drouin are proving a lot of second-guessers wrong. Relationships can get off to rocky starts in business. Sure, they can end badly, but they can start badly too. Maybe this one has a happy ending. You know how it is in 2016 — gotta have those hot takes where you’re spitting fire and fingers of blame get pointed as quickly and as voraciously as possible. Steve Yzerman took his a couple years ago for the fact Martin St. Louis wanted out of Tampa — the city he won a Cup in, became Captain in, and became a star in — and only to the New York Rangers. Yzerman found a way to get value back, and though the price point/cap hit , soon on Ryan Callahan may seem a little high, he did better than Edmonton did when Chris Pronger wanted out, or Columbus with Rick Nash, or Vancouver with either Ryan Kesler or Roberto Luongo. And now this, Yzerman stayed the course, waited Drouin out, banked on at least some degree of maturation (and/or less involvement from Drouin’s agent, Allan Walsh) and now looks like a winner, for not trading Drouin for 60 cents on the dollar when he was getting flooded with phone calls. Drouin now looks like a winner because he’s fitting in to what the team and Jon Cooper need him to do. He’s a future superstar. The talent was there, and now everything else that he has may be catching up with the talent. All this praise, and yet, Steven Stamkos is still likely walking elsewhere at the end of this season for nothing back in return. And the knives will come out again when another team gives Stamkos a monstrous eight-year contract taking him close to his 35th birthday. But Yzerman’s no dummy if it works out that way, it’s just being calculating and playing the long game when it’s the best thing for your hockey club. What might be needed for another team isn’t necessarily needed in Tampa. In the years after the 2004 Cup win, the Lightning had all of Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle, Martin St. Louis, and Nikolai Khabibulin on huge contracts digging into the Lightning’s cap limits — and post-lockout, the Bolts won a mere three playoff games over the next five seasons, and went through four head coaches in doing so. Bottom line, Yzerman and Drouin should be pretty thankful each has taken the approach they have over the last several weeks.
See you after Game 5 in Tampa on Thursday, and thanks for reading! At @gbradyradio for interaction and comments.