Braydon Coburn broke a scoreless tie early in the third period and Ben Bishop made 31 saves to lead the Lightning to a 2–0 Game 7 win over the Red Wings on Wednesday night. Tampa Bay now moves on to face the Montreal Canadiens in an Eastern Conference semifinal.
Here are three thoughts in the wake of the series clincher:
1. It wasn't pretty, but the Lightning got it done.
They don't ask you how at this time of year. They just ask how many. Good thing. Tampa was the first to four in this series but it didn't earn any style points in the process.
Looking back at this one, it's hard to figure out how the Lightning pulled it off. Yes, Bishop pitched a shutout, the first of his career, in his first career Game 7, but the nervousness he displayed in Game 6 carried over into this contest. He battled the puck all night, coughing up rebounds, struggling with his angles. It seemed he was destined to leak one or two, but Bishop held it together long enough to win the biggest game of his career.
The Lightning's offense wasn't exactly a pretty picture either. Steven Stamkos saw his goal-scoring drought extend to nine games. The star sniper was engaged, but never dangerous. Tyler Johnson, Tampa's offensive hero for the series and the first star in each of his team's three previous wins, wilted under the pressure. The legs were moving, but he seemed overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment and spent most of the night chasing the game. He was on the ice for 12 more shot attempts by the Wings than his own line mustered. Ondrej Palat was minus-9. Nikita Kucherov was minus-14.
They weren't alone in their struggles. In a must-win game, the Lightning mustered all of 10 shots at even strength. When Coburn finally broke the drought at 3:58 of the third with a 40-foot knuckler that wobbled its way over Petr Mrazek's shoulder, it was Tampa's first shot at evens in 32 minutes of play.
It was ugly, alright. But it was enough to send the Lightning on to a second-round date with the Canadiens.
2. Despite a rough series, Tampa Bay is set up to go on a run.
As bad as this was, it's the sort of win that can snowball. The Bolts battled adversity, bad bounces and a brutal power play (just two goals on 30 chances) and kept it together well enough to get by a seasoned and well-coached opponent.
They know they haven't played their best game yet. Not even close. Bishop can take his game up several notches. Stamkos, assuming he's not nursing an injury, can be a difference maker. And given enough time, it's inevitable that the league's top regular-season offense can become a factor in these playoffs.
So now the Lightning move on to face the Canadiens, a team that embarrassed them in four straight last spring ... and a team that brought out the best in the Bolts this season. Tampa went 5-0 against Montreal, outscoring the Habs 21-8. The speed of the Lightning gives them a dangerous edge in this series, much as it did for the Rangers when they knocked off Montreal in the Eastern Conference final in 2014. Despite its struggles against the Wings, Tampa Bay goes into the next round as the favorite.
3. The Red Wings will be kicking themselves all off-season.
This is going to be a tough loss for the Red Wings to swallow. Despite being short two veteran defensemen—Niklas Kronwall (suspension) and Marek Zidlicky (injury)—Detroit dominated play through the first 40 minutes and was the better team in the third. This was one it should have had.
But the Red Wings fell short Wednesday night for three reasons. First, their inability to get bodies in front of Bishop and generate second and third chances out of his sloppy play. Second, the failure of Tomas Tatar to bury a pair of premium chances off set-ups by Darren Helm in the second period. And third, a brain cramp suffered by a defenseman. Danny DeKeyser, a stalwart all season long, inexplicably decided to follow Kyle Quincey behind the Detroit net in pursuit of a loose puck instead of staying in front of the net where he belonged. If he had been in position, he might have been able to block Coburn's shot or at least take away his lane and force him to make a different decision. Instead, the defensive-minded blueliner had a clear look and managed to score his first goal in 74 games. It's one thing to lose a Game 7 on a great effort by someone like Stamkos or Johnson. You don't want to lose to a guy like Coburn.
On the plus side, the long-running goalie controversy that dogged the Wings this season has been put to rest. Handed the baton in this series, Mrazek made like Carl Lewis and ran with it. In each of Detroit's three wins he was named the first star. In Wednesday's decisive Game 7, he gave his team every chance to win by allowing one goal on 17 shots. He was its best player, start to finish.
Mrazek is still early in his development curve, but the poise and confidence he displayed suggests he is ready to take on the No. 1 job full-time next season. And that means Detroit has a fairly compelling asset in Jimmy Howard, who should draw plenty of attention in a market hungry for veteran netminders.
And speaking of the market, coach Mike Babcock has a decision to make about his future. No hurry, but he'll be in the news daily until he does.