DETROIT — Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said the plan for his potentially series-changing move began taking shape on the team's flight home from Tampa on Friday night, his staff trying to solve the daunting dilemma.
How do they stop the Lightning's red-hot line of Alex Killorn-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov?
The trio had scored seven of Tampa Bay's eight goals in the first two games, near single-handedly carrying the Lightning to a 2-0 series lead. So Blashill made a switch, creating a shutdown line of 6-foot-2, 218-pound agitator Justin Abdelkader with speedy center Luke Glendening and wing Riley Sheahan.
It worked to perfection, the line holding Killorn-Johnson-Kucherov to zero combined shots on goal in the Lightning's 2-0 loss in Sunday's Game 3.
"They were better than us," Kucherov said.
Game 4 is tonight at Joe Louis Arena, with Tampa Bay clinging to a tenuous 2-1 series lead. The Lightning clearly has more issues, like bringing a higher compete level, creating more shots (just 16 Sunday), staying out of the penalty box and finding secondary scoring.
"We can't be a one-line team," center Brian Boyle said. "It's a lot to ask three guys to do in a series."
But coach Jon Cooper said Johnson's line — then the Triplets with Kucherov and Ondrej Palat — was the main reason it beat Detroit in a seven-game series last season (beating a Glendening-led line). And it was the Johnson-Killorn-Kucherov trio that gave Tampa Bay a lead in this series.
As the home team, the Red Wings have the last line change tonight, as they did in Game 3, so it'll be a lot of Glendening's line vs. Johnson's. And coach Jon Cooper's strategy isn't shying away from the matchup.
"As far as my philosophy, it's, 'Let's go boys, man up,' " Cooper said. "Here's who you're playing against. Be better than them.' "
The issues for the Johnson's line Sunday mirrored the entire team. Their compete level wasn't high enough.
"It was more of us not being ready to play," Killorn said.
They spent too much time in the penalty box, combining for eight minutes, two penalties taken by Johnson. And they were often pinned in their own zone, a product of Blashill's message. Glendening, Sheahan and Abdelkader had a combined five shots.
"My focus to those three in particular was, first of all, the best defense is as good offense," Blashill said. "And trying to grind them and make that line defend them."
Glendening, who has matched up against Johnson ever since their days in the American Hockey League, won 62 percent of his faceoffs (Johnson was at 39 percent), giving Detroit possession. Killorn said the Red Wings line did a good job in the neutral zone of stopping them from using their trademark speed.
"And when we got in the zone, they did a good job of interfering and getting in the way so we couldn't get the puck," Killorn said.
Despite falling into an 0-2 series hole, Blashill believed there "wasn't significant differences, there were minor differences" between the Red Wings and Lightning.
Cooper said that's how both last year's playoff series with Detroit and this one has gone — the team that ends up with the most open ice comes out on top. "You've got to find a way," Cooper said.
And, fair or not, it starts with the line of Killorn, Johnson and Kucherov.
"You're not going to put up goals every single night, but you want to be getting opportunities, getting shots, creating momentum, being a line where when you're out there, you're a threat," Killorn said. "And I don't think we were a threat by any means (Sunday). So we expect to be better."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.