Regular season series recaps
Nov. 9: Lightning 4, Red Wings 3 (SO)
Jan. 29: Lightning 5, Red Wings 1
March 20: Lightning 3, Red Wings 1
March 28: Red Wings 4, Lightning 0
Lightning: D Andrej Sustr (upper body, day-to-day), D Braydon Coburn (foot, injured reserve but may return during series), D Jason Garrison (upper body, indefinite), F Alex Killorn (undisclosed, day-to-day)
Keys to a Lightning victory
One of the most important figures in the Red Wings’ remarkable 24-season playoff streak is franchise great Steve Yzerman, who won three Stanley Cups during his Hall of Fame career. After he retired, Yzerman spent four seasons in Detroit’s front office before he became Tampa Bay’s general manager in 2010. Since the Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference prior to 2013–14, Yzerman’s Lightning have dominated his former team: Tampa Bay is 7-2-0 against Detroit the last two seasons.
The Lightning are a prolific offensive team (3.2 goals per game, best in the NHL), and Steven Stamkos is the biggest reason why. In his first full season since 2011–12, Stamkos led the team with 43 goals, and his 72 points tied for the team lead. But the team’s scoring depth beyond Stamkos is what makes Tampa Bay so difficult to match up against. Ten forwards scored at least 12 goals this year, and only one of those players (Valterri Filpulla) had a negative plus-minus ratio (–14). Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat were all better than +30, putting the trio behind only Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty among the NHL’s plus-minus leaders. Johnson in particular has excelled this season: The native of Spokane, Wash., who finished third in Calder Trophy voting last year, tied with Stamkos for the team lead in points.
Injuries to blueliners Andrej Sustr, Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison leave the Lightning vulnerable defensively. It appears that Sustr and Coburn are almost ready to return, though Garrison is expected to miss entirety of the first round. Another concern for Tampa Bay is the playoff inexperience of goaltender Ben Bishop, who has never appeared in an NHL postseason game. Bishop (2.32 goals-against average) was 40-13-5 a year after he finished third in the voting for the Vezina Trophy. If the 6' 7", 209-pound Bishop is unfazed by the pressure of his first Stanley Cup playoffs, the Lightning will be a tough team to beat.
Keys to a Red Wings victory
It has been a tale of two seasons for Detroit: After a better-than-expected October through February, the Red Wings struggled through March and early April. “[When things were going well] we had good goaltending, no injuries, playing hard, better depth,” coach Mike Babcock said of the contrast. “[Lately,] we've had way less depth, the puck has gone in our net lots here of late, and yet I think our team has played very hard.”
The big question for Detroit was whether veteran Jimmy Howard or rookie Petr Mrazek would get the nod in goal. Mrazek has been inconsistent, but his 35-save performance in a 2–0 shutout of the Hurricanes on Saturday was enough for Babcock, who named him the starter for Game 1. With Jonas Gustavsson sidelined, Babcock had rotated Howard and Mrazek this season, but neither had emerged as the clear No. 1. Howard is the franchise goalie, having signed a six-year contract with the team in 2013, but his even-strength save percentage was .918, his worst since ’10–11, and his goals-against average was 2.44, his second-worst over the same stretch.
The best news for the Red Wings is that their core will be rested and healthy. Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall were all healthy scratches on Saturday, meaning that when the puck drops for Game 1 on Thursday the three veterans will have been resting for a week. Left wing Erik Cole’s season-ending spine contusion is a problem, but the impending return from a hand injury of fellow big-body left wing Justin Abdelkader is welcome news.
Despite Datsyuk and Zetterberg’s production—the two led the team in points—Detroit would not have made the postseason the last two years without the emergence of youngsters like Tomas Tatar and Riley Sheahan. Tatar’s 56 points were good for third on the team, while Sheahan’s play could be critical: The center, who scored 13 goals, with 23 assists, this season, rotates between the second and third lines depending on whether Datsyuk and Zetterberg are paired together on the first. The veteran skaters might set the tone, but young, homegrown Red Wings like Tatar, Sheahan, Danny DeKeyser and Gustav Nyquist will determine whether Detroit can compete with the depth of the Lightning. The Wings’ special teams will also need to improve after both the power play and the penalty kill declined toward the end of the season.
The Red Wings showed a lot of promise in the first five months of the season, but the goaltending situation is too big of an issue for them to be a serious Cup contender. Tampa Bay’s exceptional forward depth will be too much for Detroit to handle. Lightning in five.
Red Wings 3, Lightning 2
Lightning 5, Red Wings 1
Red Wings 3, Lightning 0
Lightning 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)
Red Wings 4, Lightning 0