Saturday April 16th, 2016

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When the NHL dreamt up its revamped playoff format to focus more on intra-division rivalries, it was games like Friday night’s entertaining Game 2 tilt between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Detroit Red Wings the league likely had in mind. A flurry of momentum swings eventually saw the Lightning topple the Wings, 5–2, in a wide-open, physical affair and put the Lightning up 2–0 in the series (highlights).

These two Atlantic Division teams know each other well, having played four times in the regular season and splitting the series. And while Game 1 was slightly guarded at times, Game 2 was anything but as the teams combined for 109 penalty minutes. Game 3 is Sunday night in Detroit.

Here are three thoughts on Friday’s game:

Nastiness emerges

Three Stars: Johnson, Luongo, Keith shine on Friday

Game 1 wasn’t exactly a physical affair, but the teams got well acquainted with each other in Game 2. There was no shortage of nastiness: Dylan Larkin took an unnecessarily late run at Jonathan Drouin, Justin Abdelkader got under the skin of Brian Boyle and Danny Dekeyser’s hit to Ondrej Palat’s sparred a long scrum that could very well be a turning point in this series. The Red Wings’ frustration was evident during a melee with less than a minute left in the game as Abdelkader left Lightning forward Mike Blunden bloodied, but not beaten.

Neither team is stacked with heavy hitters, so the ability to get under Detroit’s skin and convert chances was one of the difference-makers for Tampa Bay. While the Red Wings looked sluggish, the Lightning’s relentless forecheck and speed was ultimately what set them apart.

Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson continue to own the ice

In the first four periods of this series, Nikita Kucherov tallied four points. His rocket from the high slot opened the scoring, and he nearly had another on a pretty toe drag in the second period. His ability to create offense meant the Red Wings spent most of their time playing catch-up. They weren’t able to generate enough dangerous chances of their own and went more than nine minutes without a shot at one point.

As evidenced by his ice time and that of his line mates (Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn) it’s likely we’re just seeing the beginning of what could be an incredible playoff run from Kucherov and Johnson. Kucherov is on the cusp of being an elite offensive weapon and Johnson, with his two goals and two assists Friday night (which tied the franchise’s record for points in a playoff game), is re-emerging as the kind of goalscorer who can find the back of the net when it matters the most. It’s starting to sound like a broken record, but this line carries the Lightning.

Tampa Bay still needs to find its game early

NHL playoff notes: Crucial net calls; next offensive trend; more

It’s almost unfair to nitpick a Tampa Bay team that looked as dominant as it did, but Detroit pounced on the Lightning in the early going of the first and second periods. Detroit outshot Tampa Bay 5–0 in the first 2:19 of the first period and Larkin tied the score three-and-a-half minutes into the second by blowing past the Tampa Bay defense en route to his first playoff goal. Red Wings center Brad Richards scored a power-play marker before the five-minute mark of the third period to swing the momentum back in Detroit’s favor. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper will need to focus on tightening up his team’s early approach. It’s early, but Tampa Bay looks like the Stanley Cup contender that many had them pegged as in the preseason. The early period gaps will need to be taken care of, though.

Larkin was very much a picture of the entire Red Wings lineup Friday night: dangerous at times, but largely volatile and ineffective. Abdelkader’s slew foot on Johnson led to a 5-on-3 power play on which the Lightning converted. Pavel Datsyuk, after taking an errant stick in the face from Victor Hedman and losing a tooth, implored the referee for a penalty and ended up taking a roughing minor of his own. The normally composed Datsyuk left the ice in frustration. If the Red Wings stand any chance at coming back in this series, their veterans are going to need to play a bigger and much more composed role than they have so far.

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