On Tuesday, the National Hockey League’s Department of Player Safety announced Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall was suspended for tonight’s Game 7 at Amalie Arena following a hearing for his hit late in the second period on Nikita Kucherov in Monday’s Game 6.
A day later, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said the league’s decision “changes nothing” as the Bolts prepare for the do-or-die elimination game.
“Detroit’s going to dress 20 players,” Cooper said. “Our job is to beat the Detroit Red Wings. We have a game plan in place. Albeit he’s an important player for them, I can’t change the way now how we think and how we play.
“And we won’t.”
Cooper has remained mum on whether he thought Kronwall should have been suspended.
“To be honest, I didn’t comment to the refs during the game when it happened,” Cooper said. “I didn’t comment after the game, and I’m not going to comment on it now. It was in the league’s hands, and they felt they did what was necessary. I guess what’s done is done.”
Kronwall, who leads Detroit in time on ice at 23:35, said he was “extremely disappointed” to learn he wouldn’t be playing Game 7 and he didn’t agree with the decision.
“Obviously not one of the best moments of my life,” he said. “But there’s not much I could do really.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said the suspension could end up inspiring Detroit more than providing an advantage to Tampa Bay.
“If anything, its extra motivation for them to want to go out and try to win,” Stamkos said. “It was the same thing when (Jason Garrison) was out for us. We wanted to maybe play a little harder knowing that one of your top guys is out. We’re not worried about that. Whoever’s in and out of the lineup, it doesn’t change the way we approach this game.”
Kucherov said he has no ill effects from the illegal hit and is OK to play tonight.
Also, according to Detroit head coach Mike Babcock, another blue liner, Marek Zidlicky, will not play tonight, leaving the Red Wings without two of their best defensemen for Game 7.
Cooper said he will dress 21 players for tonight’s pregame warmups and make a decision immediately after whether to play 11 forwards and seven defensemen or 12 forwards and six defensemen in Game 7.
The Lightning have gone 12/6 all season but switched their tactics for Games 4 and 6 in Detroit with satisfying results.
“Personally I’ve run 11/7 a little bit in my career,” Cooper said. “We did a lot last year, this year not so much just because of the personnel we had. I think it gives you a different look, gives you different options. I like having the extra defenseman there. I could go down the list of reasons why. It’s not just one. It’s a bevy of things. I’ve had success with it and 2-0 doing it this series, so it’s definitely a thought tonight.”
Anton Stralman, a defenseman who will play tonight whatever the forward/defenseman alignment, said having the extra blue liner doesn’t affect the way he plays his game.
“I’m just trying to focus on my next shift all the time,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re paired up with or anything like that. Obviously, the rotation gets a little bit mixed up when you play with seven. It’s about what the coaches think is best for the team. I think everybody’s bought into that.”
The team that has scored first in the Tampa Bay-Detroit First Round series has gone on to win five of six games so far. The one aberration occurred in Game 4 when the Lightning rallied from a two-goal deficit in the final six minutes to steal a win in Detroit.
All-time in Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the team that has scored first is 116-41 (.739).
“Is the first goal the be-all end-all?” Cooper asked rhetorically. “It’s not, it’s just it has had an effect on the series of the teams that have to chase the game. It hasn’t been the be-all end-all because we did come back in Game 4 when we didn’t score first, but naturally playing ahead is much different than playing from behind. It’s that mindset.”
During Tampa Bay’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011, the Lightning faced to Game 7s. The first against Pittsburgh in the opening round, the Lightning won 1-0 on the road. Later against the Bruins in Boston, the Lightning fell 1-0 with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line.
“I remember there were few scoring chances, not a lot of penalties,” said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who played in both of those Game 7s. “It’s kind of like a chess match. It’s one of those games where you have to stick to your structure and keep your emotions in check. For us, it’s about just doing that and just focusing on our game.”
Cooper said the Lightning can’t take seven penalties like they did in Game 6. Detroit scored its first goal on the power play to cut the Bolts’ lead to 3-1 midway through Monday’s contest.
The Red Wings are 5-for-26 overall (19.2 percent) in the series on the power play.
“One thing though we have to do better, we have to be more disciplined,” Cooper said. “We took seven penalties the other day, and we’re playing with fire if we’re going to do that again. We have to be way better in that area. We were really disciplined in our structure. We weren’t disciplined penalty-wise.
“I think that’s a big thing for us. We’ve got to stay out of the box.”