Babcock making all the right moves against the Lightning

Mike Babcock is making the right moves in Detroit's first round series against Tampa Bay.

Mike Babcock is making the right moves in Detroit’s first round playoff series against Tampa Bay.

Mike Babcock’s been around, folks.

Been there, done that.

This is not his first rodeo.

Whichever cliche you want to use, it applies. The Red Wing coach has a lot of experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and it’s showing so far in this first round series between his team and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, the Red Wings blew a two-goal lead at The Joe on Thursday and lost in overtime, but after last night’s victory, Detroit is one game away from winning this series against a Lightning team that’s better than they are. Better everywhere except behind the bench.

Babcock has now been leading the Wings for 10 seasons and last night’s playoff win was his 80th as a head coach. In his previous nine trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Babcock’s Wings have only been eliminated in the first round three times. Once was last season when the Boston Bruins brushed aside the Wings in five games, another came in 2012 at the hands of the Predators, and the first was in 2006 when Babcock and the Red Wings were stunned by the Edmonton Oilers in the first round.

You don’t get the same feeling this year as in those years — a feeling of disappointment. Because these Wings aren’t supposed to be ready to win yet. The Detroit roster has many young pieces and the Lightning are a very good team with a high-powered offense. But Babcock has devised an excellent game plan that’s worked brilliantly in this series that has been characterized by long stretches of grinding defense.

The Lightning know that they got lucky to win Game Four — that Detroit outplayed them for more than two periods and shackled their top line. Even with the “momentum” the Bolts got from their OT victory, Babcock didn’t let them carry that into Game Five. Instead, the Wings stymied Tampa Bay by forcing them out of their rhythm. Game Fuve (and much of the series) has been dull, but that’s how Babcock wants it. He knows his team can’t win a skate and shoot affair with Tampa Bay. But a puck control game is to his advantage.

Babcock surprised many by starting Petr Mrazek in net for the series, but the young netminder responded with a 119-minute shutout streak over games three and four and then came back with his second shutout in Game Five. Mrazek’s brilliant run this postseason so far is another example of Babcock choosing the hot hand at the right time.

”He’s an elite competitor and he’s got good savvy about him. He thinks he’s going to win,” Babcock said. ”He’s a real confident guy, and he’s got great athleticism.”

That may be the case, but there are a lot of fans and even a lot of people in the game of hockey who weren’t sure about the decision to bench Howard, a veteran of Stanley Cup battles. But Mrazek, buoyed by Babcock’s confidence, has risen to the challenge.

Not only has the goaltending situation worked out, but Detroit’s defensive shifts and strategy have been spot-on, with the exception of a few lapses late in Game Four’s loss. Niklas Kronwall, Brendan Smith, and Danny DeKeyser have frustrated the Lightning with their disciplined play, and Kronwall has assisted on two goals this series. In Game Five, the Lightning went 13 minutes in the first period before they got their first shot on goal.

The Wings have a chance to put the Lightning away on Monday night back here in Detroit. Babcock’s record in put-away games is very solid and if the Wings are able to advance by winning one of the next two games against a favored Tampa team, their coach deserves a large chunk of the credit.