For each series in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, Last Word On Sports will take a look at key storylines that will come to the forefront in series previews, complete with an overview of the series, key storylines, and predictions. Today, it’s the Detroit Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning matchup.
Series Preview: Red Wings VS Lightning
Amalie Arena was starting the countdown from twenty seconds on. The Tampa Bay Lightning were about to defeat the Detroit Red Wings and continue their march towards the franchise’s second Stanley Cup since its inception in 1992, a run that would fall two wins short. But next round’s series against the Canadiens wasn’t even a concern in the moment, as they swarmed their goaltender and proceeded with the handshakes with a team that their General Manager led to glory in years past.
The Detroit Red Wings, who had a lead in the series three times, failed to solve goaltender Ben Bishop despite getting 31 pucks to his equipment to 17 for the home team in the final game of the series. As the war went on, they felt they were the better team battle by battle, but just did not have that killer instinct that past Red Wing teams had. Missed opportunities, such as the blown 2-0 lead in Game 4 and the let down performance of Game 6 at home up 3 games to 2, proved to be costly. Captain Henrik Zetterberg led the handshake line for the third time in his career donning the “C,” the second straight campaign his team failed to get out of the first round.
Fast forward a year later, and here we are yet again for a new war. Same teams, same rivalry, new storylines.
This season, the Bolts finished with a 46-31-5 record (97 points), four wins and 11 points behind last season’s total. It was really a tale of two seasons for Jon Cooper’s group, who finished the first 38 games with an 18-16-4 record. Since, amid the Steven Stamkos contract and Jonathan Drouin suspension situations, the team finished the season with a 28-15-1 record, including two significant win streaks of seven and nine games in January and March.
After scoring 259 goals as a team to lead the NHL last season, amid injuries the Lightning lit the lamp 224 times to place 12th in the League this campaign. Playing stingy defense in front of Bishop (28.9 Shots against/G), the Lightning allowed the 5th fewest goals against (2.40/G). The decrease in scoring also brought the power play down from a 18.4% conversion rate to 15.8% in 2015-16, the third-worst power play in the NHL. With the weapons Cooper has at his disposal, that is a surprising number. The penalty kill proved strong however, coming in at an 84% rate, 7th best.
Jeff Blashill’s Red Wings in his first season behind the bench also saw a regression, posting a 41-30-11 record (93 points), getting into the postseason for the 25th consecutive season by virtue of having more regulation and overtime wins than the Boston Bruins (39-38). The team struggled to find consistency all season long, posting just five three-game win streaks. The season high was one four-game winning streak.
209 goals-for placed 23rd in the League, and it was just the third time since 2000 that the Wings finished outside of the top ten in team goal-scoring in a full 82-game season. Inconsistent defense coupled with Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek carrying respective hot and cold streaks led to the Wings allowing 2.67 goals per game. Special teams recently have been a strength for Detroit, pushing a power play unit that was once bottom-ten in the League to 13th at an 18.8% clip. The penalty kill proved to be huge as well, bumping up to 81.5% (14th).
The two teams split the season series two games apiece, with the home team winning each of the games. What will the rematch bring this time around?
Story In The Crease
Ben Bishop turned in another impressive campaign for the Bolts. Suiting up for 61 games, the Denver native won 35 contests and had the best year of his career. Among goaltenders that played at least 50 games, Bishop led all goaltenders with a .926 save percentage and 2.06 GAA. His .930 5v5 save percentage among goalies that played at least 2000 minutes was 10th. All 6’7″ of Bishop has been a huge part of a strong penalty kill and defense, and he will be the bonafide starter barring any injuries. If something were to happen to Bishop, Andrei Vasilevskiy has only four games played (one start) of NHL playoff experience. This season, he logged 11 wins with a .910 save percentage in 21 starts.
In mid-February, it was hard to see anyone other than Petr Mrazek in the starter’s net for Game 1. Taking over the net he logged 18 wins in a stretch from November 6th to February 12th with a .935 save percentage, stealing games for the Red Wings with a remarkable confidence that seemed to be unbreakable for the 24-year old net minder. However, since this run, the young net minder has amassed a 6-7-1 record allowing three or more goals six times with a save percentage of .866. That led to Jimmy Howard, who didn’t win a game in a ten-start span from early December to late February, getting the call for the stretch run. He responded, winning four of six crucial starts to get the Wings to this point. As a reward, he was named the starter for this year’s Game 1.
Scoring By Committee
The Lightning suffered two key injuries during the final stretch of the season, losing their most dangerous forward in the form of Steven Stamkos (31G, 64P) and stingiest all-around defenseman in Anton Stralman. In 73 contests averaging 22 minutes of ice time, the latter posted a 57% CF% in tie-game situations, 7th among all defensemen. Stamkos caught fire when the calendar turned to 2016, scoring 20 goals in a 41-game stretch.
“If you want to glass half-full it, I guess you can sit here and say, ‘Let’s win one for the Gipper,’ we’ve all got to bind together, it’s going to push us to new heights. But in reality they’re two of our best players, you can’t replace their talent. It’s no doubt a blow, but one thing we can’t do is sit here and say, ‘Our two big guns are out and now our season is over.’ We’ve come too far to have anything like try and get in our mind-set. Let’s make their last game go out on their own terms and playing this year, because we’re not in spot we are today without those guys.’ That’s got to be our mind-set. Let’s get them back. Let’s not make this the end of their season.”
-Jon Cooper, Lightning Head Coach
With news of top defenseman Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson (six goals vs Red Wings last series) and Ryan Callahan also dealing with some bumps and bruises, others will have to pick up some slack. Enter Vladislav Namestnikov (14G, 35P), Ondrej Palat (16G, 40P), Alex Killorn (14G, 40P), Valtteri Filppula (72 career playoff points) and most recently, Jonathan Drouin. After much anticipation that the former 3rd overall pick would get traded, Steve Yzerman chose to keep him. With Stamkos gone, it could pay off big time. The 21-year old scored in each of his two games back with the team after scoring 11 goals in 17 games in the AHL where he served a lengthy suspension after his trade request and refusal to play. Defense scoring could play a huge role, as the Lightning racked up 34 goals from their back-end. However, they will be losing nine of those with Stralman’s injury.
Saying it was a challenge for the Wings to generate offense this season was an understatement. The team had just two 20-goal scorers, one 50-point man, and regressive years from Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. In addition, 35-year old Henrik Zetterberg and 37-year old Pavel Datsyuk combined for just 99 points this season. Taking out the lockout-shortened 2013 season and 2013-14 campaign that saw both miss half the schedule due to injury, the total of 99 points combined for the “Euro-twins” is their lowest combined point total since Zetterberg’s rookie season in 2002-03. They just cannot be relied on to carry the team on their backs anymore, leading to the importance of young contribution. 19-year old rookie Dylan Larkin was in the conversation for the Calder Trophy at one point in the season, finishing with a team-leading 23 goals. 21-year old Andreas Athanasiou in just 37 games scored nine goals and 14 points, performing well while constantly logging under ten minutes per night. 24-year old Riley Sheahan turned it up at the end of the season, scoring five goals and nine points in the final 13 games to finish with 25 points as a net-front presence. Detroit got 30 goals from their back-end, so without Stralman in the lineup they have the statistical edge. However, breakouts must be cleaner if they want to get fluent zone entries against a structured Tampa Bay team.
The Last Ride for The Magic Man?
The Lightning already have trouble containing Pavel Datsyuk in the regular season, as in his career he’s potted seven goals and 16 points against the Bolts in 15 contests. Last year he collected three goals and five points in the seven-game series defeat, proving hard to contain even at his tender age. This time around, with the possibility of Datsyuk leaving for Russia at the end of the Wings’ playoff run, they may have to tighten up even more, especially with the loss of Stralman. At the same time, it gives incentive to play for their injured superstars as Cooper mentioned until both could possibly come back into the lineup.
“Because of the rumors out there, I wanted to clear this up now before the playoffs started so I can focus only on giving my best playoff performance. And I wanted the fans to hear it from me, not someone else.”
-Pavel Datsyuk, Red Wings Center
Jeff Blashill has elected to pair up Zetterberg and Datsyuk in what could be the final playoff run the combination plays together. Both have stepped up to the plate come playoff time in their careers, combining for 98 goals and 232 points in 284 games. Having not missed the playoffs since the duo’s inception, the extra wear and tear of “the second season” could prove an advantage for Tampa in the present. However, if the Wings play as a unit and rally behind their aging superstar, they could make noise in this series.
Red Wings in 7.
Jeff Blashill and Jon Cooper know each other well and are good friends, having coached against each other in the USHL and AHL Championship Series. Cooper won the first matchup and Blashill won the second. Blashill’s team will be moving on in the third. It will be another tight series just as last year’s bout with a few overtime thrillers. Whether it be Jimmy Howard, Petr Mrazek, or a combination of both, the Detroit goaltending will perform to match Ben Bishop, and the Wings will exploit Tampa’s injuries with a resurgence in offense. The Lightning have enough help to survive in this series without two key pieces, but the push-back from Detroit for last season’s disappointment will carry them over the hump.
LWOS Staff Predictions
Ben Kerr Tampa Bay in 6
Ken Hill Tampa Bay in 5
Mark Grainda Tampa Bay in 5
Connor Ferguson Detroit in 5
Markus Meyer Tampa Bay in 6
Chris Lizza Tampa Bay in 6
Dave Gove Tampa Bay in 7
Nicholas Di Giovanni Detroit in 7
Cristiano Simonetta Tampa Bay in 7
Zachary Bear DeVine Tampa Bay in 7
Nic Hendrickson Detroit in 7
Catherine Dore Tampa Bay in 7
Stats courtesy of ESPN.com, NHL.com, HockeyDB, Puckalytics, DetroitRedWings.com, TampaBayLightning.com
Quotes courtesy of Detroit Free Press and Tampa Bay Times