Prior to his team's virtual must-win game against the Lightning on Sunday, Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill was forced to defend his limited usage of forward Andreas Athanasiou in the series.
“Double A’s a good player who is growing,” Blashill said. “Double A will prove whether or not he can be an elite player ... he’s only been able to show flashes of elite. And that’s why we’ve used him in the minutes we’ve used him."
He showed more than just flashes in Detroit's 2–0 win over the Tampa Bay Lighting on Sunday night. The rookie winger electrified the home crowd with a double-spin move in the first period that screwed veteran Tampa Bay defender Jason Garrison into the ice, then scored the only goal Detroit would need at 12:42 of the second with a sizzling one-timer that beat Ben Bishop to the short side.
Henrik Zetterberg added an insurance goal that was reviewed twice before being put on the board later in the period. Goaltender Petr Mrazek was solid if unspectacular in his series debut, making 16 saves to earn the shutout.
The Red Wings' victory cuts Tampa's series lead to 2–1. Game 4 is on Tuesday night in Detroit.
Here are three thoughts on Sunday’s game:
Changes paid off
Blashill made wholesale changes to his roster after dropping both games in Tampa and ended up looking like a genius. Defenseman Brendan Smith set the tone with a massive hit that leveled Charles Paquette on his first shift of the series. Mrazek, who replaced Jimmy Howard, was rarely tested, but made the stops he had to make. He was efficient in his positioning and economical with his rebounds, ensuring that the Bolts never managed to build sustained pressure on the attack.
But Blashill's best move was his shuffling of the forward lines. The new-look units dominated the Bolts defensively, with the trio of Riley Sheahan, Luke Glendening and Justin Abdelkader making their mark by shutting down Tampa Bay's top line. Their speed and physicality helped the Wings dominate the neutral zone and set a pace that the Lightning just couldn't match.
In the end, the new-look Wings out-attempted Tampa, 63–42, a fair reflection of how thoroughly they dominated the contest.
Detroit's still in a tough spot, needing to win three of the next four games, but the execution and intensity the Wings displayed in this one proves they've got a shot.
Time to trust Double A
Athanasiou only ended up skating 9:05 in the contest, barely a minute more than his average for Games 1 and 2, but he made the most of his time. His speed and energy set the table for Detroit's victory long before he scored the winning goal by forcing the Lightning's defense to hang back every time he was on the ice. That created space in the neutral zone and allowed the Wings' forwards to enter the attack zone with speed.
And so, it's hard to figure out why Blashill was so miserly with his ice time in the second and third periods. Sure, it's the "Detroit Way" that demands a player earn his ice, but what more could the kid have done to show he was worthy of a longer leash? And why was their most potent threat limited to just 19 seconds of power play time when the regulars were so ineffective on multiple chances?
Maybe Blashill was leaning to the conservative side in order to prevent the Wings from going into a 3–0 hole. But now that Detroit has gained some momentum, it only makes sense to trust Athanasiou with a larger role in Game 4.
Bolts offer little resistance
If there was anything to knock about Tampa Bay's efforts in winning the first two games of the series it's that it only had one line going offensively. Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov were virtually unstoppable at Amalie Arena, accounting for seven of the Lightning's eight goals and a total of 15 points, nearly twice as many as the rest of the team combined (8).
It was clear that the Wings were going to key in on them in Game 3, and they did, with spectacular results. Not only did they keep the trio off the scoresheet, they held them without a shot on net in the contest. And with that unit neutralized, Tampa Bay's attack was effectively silenced.
“Tonight, they competed a lot harder than we did and that’s what it boils down to,’’ Johnson said. “We did not compete to the best that we can do and you're not going to score when you do that. It boils down to being competitive.’’
He's right on about the effort, but the problems run deeper than that. Without Steven Stamkos (blood clots), there's not enough of a secondary option in Tampa Bay's offense.
"You can't count on three guys to score every night," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "That's not how it works."
They need someone, anyone, to step up if they're going to get back on track in Game 4.
The Bolts also need to address their discipline issues. They gave the Red Wings seven cracks at the power play, including 59 seconds of a two-man advantage. And while their penalty kill might have been the best part of their game, all that time in the box strangled any chance they had of building momentum.
The Lightning have brought a much more physical game than many expected to this series, so much so that it's looked like a Western Conference tilt at times. But they have to stop digging holes with the cheap stuff, especially in the offensive zone. Even a struggling power play like Detroit's will light the lamp eventually, and a timely goal might be all the Wings need to regain control of this series.