The Tampa Bay Lightning completed a long, grinding, 82-game regular season just for the opportunity to get to this point
Now the second season, the real one, begins.
The Lightning host the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of a First Round Stanley Cup Playoffs series tonight, a rematch of last year’s opening round battle that went the distance. Detroit snuck out of Amalie Arena with a victory in Game 1 last season, forcing the Bolts to play catchup the rest of the series.
Tampa Bay, in fact, has struggled historically in Game 1s, going 1-7 in the opening game of a First Round playoff series. The Bolts are 6-11 in the opening game of all playoff series.
“I’ve been a part of five playoff series, and have won one Game 1,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s not ideal because you think, we lost Game 1 to Detroit last year, we lost Game 1 to the Rangers, now looking at the big picture, you’ve got to win four out of the next six, which seems a little bit more daunting. It’s obviously not the end of the world to lose Game 1, but I’m just going to say for the record, we really want to win Game 1.”
The Lightning hope to use lessons learned against the Red Wings last season to better prepare for Game 1 this season.
“The first series I saw personally was against Montreal (in 2014), and I thought we were mentally prepared but we just weren’t,” Tyler Johnson said. “Last year, coming into the Detroit series, Detroit kind of took it to us at the beginning, and we had to kind of wake up even more so. I think that series against Detroit last year was the series that really helped us throughout the rest of the playoffs.”
The Lightning are in the postseason for the third-straight season. Cooper said the experience of the prior two seasons has made him more playoff savvy. He knows what’s happening a little more. There’s no fear of the unexpected.
“I’m really looking forward to tonight,” he said. “You can just tell the mood is different. There’s a much different mood between game 82 and game 83, and we’re definitely feeling it now. It’s exciting, a really exciting time.”
GAME-TIME DECISION FOR JOHNSON
Tampa Bay center Tyler Johnson skated for the second day in a row, taking part in the Lightning’s optional morning skate Wednesday at Amalie Arena. Johnson wore a regular jersey for the second-straight day and didn’t appear limited in any drills.
Johnson was injured in the final game of the regular season when he was hit by Montreal’s Greg Pateryn after the whistle and slammed hard into the boards. The 25-year-old is considered day-to-day after sustaining an upper-body injury.
“I feel good,” Johnson told reporters in the locker room following the skate. “It’s up to (the trainers) to decide what we’re going to do.”
Cooper said Johnson will be evaluated this afternoon to gauge the effects from this morning’s skate. His inclusion in the lineup will be a game-time decision, but Cooper is optimistic Johnson will be ready.
“I’m hoping he’ll be available tonight,” Cooper said.
Despite a 6-2 Tampa Bay victory over Detroit in the last meeting (March 22) between the teams, Lightning-Red Wings games typically are low-scoring affairs decided by a single goal.
Part of that is because of Detroit’s style of play, which makes space hard to come by out on the ice.
“It’s like playing a game in a closet,” Cooper said. “We really have to fight for every inch out there. I just know it’s going to be one of those series.”
In last year’s series, the Lightning struggled early to find a way to open the game up. The Bolts were shut out for just the second time all season in Game 3 at Detroit and that scoreless streak stretched into Game 4 when the Bolts found themselves trailing 2-0 with less than six minutes remaining before rallying to win in overtime.
“It’s tough,” Boyle said. “There’s a lot of blocked shots, selling out. Every goal’s crucial it seems. Offense is sometimes hard to come by. The sacrifice is there to a man from every team. It seems it’s elevated in the playoffs because there’s more at stake. It’s difficult. There’s going to be more fight for space in the neutral zone, and we’ll see how it plays out in terms of how it’s officiated. There’s some give and take there, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Detroit had a chance to close the Lightning out last season up three games to two and hosting Game 6. But the Bolts responded with one of their best games of the season to win 5-2 at Joe Louis Arena and blanked the Red Wings 2-0 at home in Game 7 to advance to the Second Round.
“It was a fun series last year,” Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg said. “It was a hard one. It went all the way to seven. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one goes deep too. We played good enough last year I would say to go through, but they did it. They found a way to win, and then they went all the way to the Finals. You have to find that extra thing that takes you over the hump. You’ve got to find a way to win. They did it last year, and we’ve got a chance this year.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Ben Bishop will make his 26th postseason start in net for the Lightning tonight. Bishop finished the regular season with the league’s top goals-against average (2.06) and matched the franchise record for GAA over a season set in 2003-04 by John Grahame (Bishop’s 2.06 GAA came over 61 games, however, compared to 29 for Grahame)…Jimmy Howard will be in goal for Detroit tonight. Howard is 5-3-2 with a 2.12 GAA and .929 save percentage in 10 regular season appearances all-time vs. the Lightning. Howard made a relief appearance in Game 2 last season and made 11 saves on 12 Tampa Bay shots…Victor Hedman (upper-body injury) and Ryan Callahan (lower-body injury) did not participate in the Lightning’s optional morning skate on Wednesday.