Loss in Special Teams Battle Pushes Wings to Brink

The familiar in-arena cue of a penalty called against the opposition rang loud throughout Joe Louis Arena Tuesday night, as the fans sensed the importance of the upcoming power play for the team they supported. With 8:16 on the clock, it was 2-2 game in the fourth game of the best-of-seven, with Tampa Bay up two games to one. The Detroit power play, 1-for-20 in the series, including 0-for their last 10, felt the urgency in an aspect of their game that plagued them all season long up until the stretch run. The Bolts, 3-for-18 in the series, suddenly caught fire on their man advantage, scoring twice already in the contest for both of their tallies. With another chance likely coming for Jon Cooper’s squad, this chance had the makings of a series breaker.

Loss in Special Teams Battle Pushes Wings to Brink

About 45 seconds into this man advantage, 19-year old hometown rookie Dylan Larkin was sneaking in down low. He caught a pass from Niklas Kronwall at the point and brought the puck to the net on his backhand. He flipped it over goaltender Ben Bishop’s glove as he was coming across the crease.

A ping. Flashing lights. A crowd that ignited. All for a puck that didn’t cross the goal line. The announcers were fooled. I was fooled. Everyone was.

The puck slowly floated across the goal line off the inside of that far post, and the crowd slowly deflated in disbelief with the play-by-play teams correcting their incorrect calls.

That would be the best chance the Wings would get. They were now 1-for-21 on the man advantage in the series.

Close to two minutes later, that expected chance came for the Bolts. Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson was called for cross-checking with 4:42 on the clock. Dangerous all night, the unit of Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, Brian Boyle, Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin went to work again looking for their third power play goal. After some mesmerizing passing, Drouin found Palat’s stick at the foot of the goal mouth.

Death blow. A once-raucous crowd at the Joe, celebrating 25 consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, was silenced just like that. Three minutes later, Tampa had won its third game in four and earned a chance to eliminate the Wings yet again like last year, but in quicker fashion.

“We didn’t really have a ton of chances to work on the power play. We switched our units a bit and we put the puck in the hands of guys who know what to do with it.”
-Jon Cooper

Throughout this series, the penalty killing units were shining, but sooner or later, one had to figure that one of the two power-play units would catch fire as well. The personnel moved as quick as the team’s name implied, zipping the puck around Detroit’s offensive zone on all three goals. The guys certainly knew what to do with the puck here.

Detroit has scored two goals in each of the four games, and getting the “next” goal to turn the tide of the game in their favor has been an a Achilles’ Heel. Throughout the regular season, as a team they scored just 50 markers on the man advantage, 19 less than last season. They also brought in Brad Richards and Mike Green to add to an already potent power play, but the biggest loss that has outweighed the two signees may have been assistant coach Jim Hiller. The Wings just haven’t been able to adjust to first-year assistant Pat Ferschweiler’s scheme, and the results have shown.

Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg had eight and two goals respectively in 5v4 situations. The former led the team with those eight. Gustav Nyquist scored exactly half of his total from 2014-15 with seven PPGs. Tomas Tatar had seven, and Niklas Kronwall, still penciled in as Detroit’s power-play quarterback for the first unit, had none all season long. Green and Richards combined for nine.

“When things don’t go well, you overthink stuff. You start to overthink everything instead of just making the simple first play, which is, most of the time, the right play.”
– Henrik Zetterberg

The Red Wings are no strangers to one-goal games, as that made up more than half of their schedule results this season, but if they want to succeed in staving off first round elimination for the third straight season and build some leads, the unit must step up and get pucks through Tampa’s defense, which has blocked 63 shots in four games in front of 6’7″ Ben Bishop. Having Valtteri Filppula and Boyle in the face-off circle doesn’t hurt either. They did post the third-worst power play in the League themselves, but made up for it mightily with the 6th-best penalty kill.

“We had the whole season to tune up the structure. I think we’ve been doing a really good job. Guys are sticking to the structure, sticking together out there. Guys are making sacrifices, blocking shots.”
-Andrej Sustr

Getting just 22 shots on goal in 21 power play opportunities, the failure to capitalize has been a huge difference in the series being tied, or even swinging in Detroit’s favor. Whether it be a mix-up of lines getting guys like puck-mover Brendan Smith (1:14 PP TOI) or the electrifying Andreas Athanasiou (0:33 PP TOI) into the fray, making the simple play as the 35-year old Zetterberg touched on, Justin Abdelkader and Riley Sheahan doing a better job of getting traffic in front of Tampa’s “Godzilla,” or just firing it to the net when there’s an open shot, things must change tonight.

If they don’t and Tampa’s power play surge carries over, the curtains will close on the 2015-16 edition of the club.

It could also be the last act for a certain magician with the puck.

Quotes courtesy of Tampa Bay Times, Detroit News, NHL.com
Stats courtesy of NHL.com
Videos courtesy of NHL.com

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