By Ashley Dunkak
@AshleyDunkak

CBS DETROIT – If the Detroit Red Wings topple the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, it will surprise many, in particular the experts for NHL.com and ESPN.com, none of whom have picked the Red Wings to emerge victorious from the series.

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On Tuesday, as players packed for the trip, Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock noted that if the group defied expectations it would not be the first time.

“I’ve been hearing today that we’re the underdog,” Babcock said after Tuesday’s practice. “At this time of the year we weren’t supposed to make the playoffs, either. I’m not too worried about that. We’re going to prepare like crazy and give ourself the best chance. It’s our job to be ready to go in Game 1. We’ll have had significant time to prepare. Whoever’s available health-wise is going to play, and we expect to win.

“I think we’re well on our way in preparation,” Babcock added. “We’ve had two good practices, we’ll have a nice, short practice [Wednesday] and get ready to play, and the energy will be there, and now we’ve got to execute.”

Red Wings star forward Henrik Zetterberg echoed the coach’s nonchalance about the ominous predictions about Detroit.

“We don’t care that much,” Zetterberg said. “Experts are experts. That’s what they get paid for – to give their opinion. We believe in ourself in here. We know we’re a good team.”

Tampa Bay has scored more goals, 259, than any other team in the league, and it defeated Detroit in three of four matchups this season. Two of Detroit’s losses came at the expense of veteran goaltender Jimmy Howard, who has since been relegated to the bench. Petr Mrazek, who will take his place, shut out the Lightning in Detroit’s only victory against the team this season.

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The Lightning finished the regular season on a strong note, winning three straight.

“They’re a quick team,” forward Darren Helm said. “They’re a good offensive team that has a lot of scoring threats. We’ve got to find ways to slow that down.

“Usually when you’re playing against teams that can skate, usually you find the game opening up a little bit,” Helm continued. “It’s a challenge not to get kind of sucked into that track meet style of game where you’re going up and down and you kind of lose your detail of the game. We’ve got to hope that we stick with it, with our game plan, and we kind of get them off of theirs and kind of break up their structure. I think it’ll be a great series if we’re just playing the way that both teams can play.”

Babcock said a low-scoring game will bode well for the Red Wings, and forward Gustav Nyquist sounded confident Detroit could keep Tampa Bay from its usual production.

“We’re not looking to trade chances against them,” Nyquist said. “We’re going to play a tight game. We’ll play our game and not give up too many chances so they won’t score that much.

“It’s just tighter in general out there [during the playoffs],” Nyquist added. “You’ve got to fight for your ice a little bit more. It’s different from, say, January or December, and for sure it’s more physical. I think the refs let go of some of the hooking and tripping – the small calls, the stick calls, I would say, out there, so it’s even harder to get power play opportunities and it’s harder to get an edge out there.”

The Red Wings secured their playoff berth on the second-to-last game of the season, eking their way into the postseason for the third straight time and continuing the overall streak of 24 playoff appearances. Players hope the team can regain its earlier form – Detroit went 9-3 in January – instead of struggling as they have in the past couple of months.

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“We found ways to win in that stretch, whether we were down or holding on, we found ways to win, and we’ve got to do that now,” Helm said. “The last six weeks, two months, things just weren’t really rolling for us. I don’t know if we were a very confident team. With the lead or without the lead, we weren’t finding ways to win. Now we’ve got to get back to that and find ways. It’s not going to be easy … but that’s the fun part of it.”