Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
As far as rivalries go, this one has developed rather recently. The Detroit Red Wings moved to the Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference for the start of the 2013-14 season, and since have had very memorable games with the Tampa Bay Lightning, including a seven-game first-round series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season won by the Lightning.
Currently, the two teams are tied in points (58) and have played the same number of games (49). If they remain second and third in the division, they would meet in the first round of the playoffs again.
The Lightning are 8-2-0 in their past 10 games and the Red Wings are 6-3-1. Tampa Bay plays well at home (15-8-2) and Detroit has been one of the better road teams in the League (14-6-3). Something's got to give.
The Red Wings (25-16-8) visit the Lightning (27-18-4) at Amalie Arena on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Dylan Larkin showed the world the type of player he is at the All-Star Weekend in Nashville. He won the fastest skater in the Skills Competition and broke Mike Gartner's 20-year old record for the fastest time. I don't think Gartner gets enough respect for the type of player he was and his explosiveness and goal scoring ability. You look at how long the record stood. No one had come close, but Larkin shattered it even though he stumbled two times.
Video: Dylan Larkin breaks 20-year fastest skater record
Larkin was tied for the League lead at plus-24 entering the All-Star break and has 15 goals and 33 points (each rank third among rookies). He's playing with Henrik Zetterberg on the first line. He works hard and still has a lot to learn. Everyone at All-Star Weekend was blown away by him, as was I.
Detroit is still getting contributions from Zetterberg (third on the Red Wings in scoring) and Pavel Datsyuk (tied for fifth). Not only are they providing leadership and work ethic, but they are also still incredible players.
Gustav Nyquist hasn't been as dynamic as last year which could be one reason they've been playing a lot of one-goal games. But the good thing is, they are very comfortable playing close games, although they'd love to be able to score a little more on 5-on-5.
Petr Mrazek is a Vezina Trophy candidate. It's not easy to come in and play with Jimmy Howard, a two-time All-Star, there. Mrazek (18-9-4, 2.03 goals-against average, .932 save percentage, three shutouts) is great and he plays the puck really well too, which helps lead to offensive breaks.
Minuses: The Red Wings still need more depth up front and on defense. They've relied on the same guys offensively, and likely don't have enough on the back end to make a deep run.
Last season, they didn't score much 5-on-5 but their power play was amazing. This year the power play isn't functioning the same way. I think some of it may be due to injuries with Zetterberg and Brad Richards having missed time, but they'd like the power play to pick up.
The Red Wings are 8-8 in games that have gone past regulation this season. Those extra eight points they haven't picked up could be critical down the stretch.
Pluses: They've started to hit their stride after a slow start, going 8-1-0 in their past nine games. They've been scoring goals and been more offensive. Steven Stamkos is playing on a line with Vladislav Namestnikov and Ondrej Palat. In addition Nikita Kucherov has been amazing. He leads the Lightning in points (41) and is second in goals with 20; he has four goals in his past three games.
I talked to Ben Bishop this weekend and he's been just as good as he was last year when they made it to the Stanley Cup Final. He's kept them in almost every game. He has 19 wins, a 2.02 GAA, .926 save percentage and two shutouts, and was a constant when they dealt with injuries and the slow start.
Minuses: The uncertainty with the Jonathan Drouin situation is a distraction even if the Lightning are playing well. He likely will be traded, and the sooner the better for Tampa Bay, which can move on and focus on another run at the Stanley Cup.
Similarly, the contract situation with Stamkos, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, has been hanging over them all season. There have been reports he's been offered a long-term contract to stay, but nothing is finalized yet. Stamkos leads the Lightning with 21 goals but Yzerman would love to get him locked up for the future before the summer.
Their power play has scored in three straight games but was scoreless in seven of eight prior. It would be nice to see that pick up.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Will the Lightning be able to generate more offense than the Red Wings? The Lightning are a faster team and have more offensive depth.
2. Steve Yzerman Bowl. The general manager of the Lightning will watch his current team play the team he played his entire NHL career for.
3. Will Mrazek or Bishop's puck-handling skills factor into the game? Each goalie plays the puck extremely well.