TAMPA, Fla. – In the NHL, rivalries are born and nurtured in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning have never met in the postseason, but that won’t strip the luster from tonight’s Atlantic Division showdown between these franchises at Amalie Arena.
The top two clubs in the division know each other quite well, especially the 18 players who battled in the 2013 Calder Cup finals between the Grand Rapids Griffins and Syracuse Crunch.
“I think we have a lot more respect for each other because of everything,” said Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who was tied with Tomas Tatar for second in playoff scoring that year. “I mean, I know those guys over there, I respect them a lot for their battle. They’re fun to play against and obviously they took something from us. Anytime you can play against them you just do your best and it’s always fun.”
The players and coaches involved in tonight’s game clearly share a mutual admiration for one another.
“I think true rivalries in the NHL don't start until you play each other in a playoff series,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “If that comes down to it this year, then you're probably going to see something special out there. It's funny, the NHL rivalry is based on a bunch of guys who played in the American League against each other.”
Tatar was one of 10 current players on the Red Wings’ roster who led the Griffins to the AHL championship over the Crunch. The others were Joakim Andersson, Danny DeKeyser, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco, Brian Lashoff, Tom McCollum, Petr Mrazek, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan.
“We played Syracuse in finals two years ago, but I know the three Czech guys on the team, they’re really good friends with me,” Mrazek said, referring to the Lightning’s Radko Gudas, Ondrej Palat and Andrej Sustr. “I think they have a good team. They have good forwards, good speed, they can shoot the puck.
“When you know the players on the team and you’re friends with them it’s always a rivalry. But I think it’s going to be a good match, a good game. Tampa has a good team now, it’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
There’s no mistaking the Hockeytown flavor that’s in Tampa Bay now, beginning with legendary Wings center Steve Yzerman, who is in his fifth season as the Lightning’s vice president and general manager. There’s also assistant GM Pat Verbeek, coaches Rick Bowness and Steve Thomas, pro scout Jamie Pushor, and center Valtteri Filppula, who all played for the Red Wings at some point in their careers.
Then there’s Cooper, who spent time in Michigan, earning a law degree and coaching high school hockey in the Lansing area. So facing the Wings certainly gives an added incentive to the 45-year-old native of Prince George, British Columbia.
“I have so many good friends there,” he said. “So much of my adult life I spent going to Red Wings games. There's a plethora of reasons. I've become friends with the coach and the coaching staff. The minor league coach is one of my best friends, Jeff Blashill. So you tie all this in, of course I have a relationship with them. Then you couple in I work for Steve Yzerman, Pat Verbeek, you go down the list of Red Wings - Jamie Pushor's on our staff - and so I just feel there's something close with our two teams.”
Since moving to the East, the Red Wings have compiled a 1-2-3 record against the Lightning, who have won eight in a row at home, tying a franchise mark for most consecutive home wins set during the 2005-06 season
“Really talented,” coach Mike Babcock said of the Lightning. “Good speed, good goaltending; active, mobile back end, really talented and deep up front, really skate well. Lots of high-end skill. As skilled a team as we got in the Eastern Conference.”
Tonight marks the second of four meetings between these teams this season. Tampa Bay has won five of their past six head-to-head matchups, including a 4-3 shootout victory at Joe Louis Arena on Nov. 9.
But Filppula, who spent his first eight NHL seasons in Detroit, still considers the Red Wings the team to beat in the East. Detroit is seeking its seventh straight win, something that last happened in Jan. 2012.
“Obviously there’s a little different personnel, young guys playing, but it looks really good,” he said. “Guys are really fast, a lot of skill and I think that’s normally how the Wings are playing, puck possession, good with the puck. I don’t think those things have changed. Obviously, new guys always bring something different to the table, but they’re looking like the team to beat right now.”
Left Wing - DET
Goals: 11 | Assists: 16 | Pts: 27
Shots: 80 | +/-: 9
There was a larger than usual crowd milling about the Red Wings’ bench at Thursday’s morning skate inside Amalie Arena.
Fourteen couples from Muskegon, Mich. – who migrate annually to Florida’s sunshine for the winter months – where here to show support for their hometown hero, Justin Abdelkader.
Many are former neighbors and parents of Abdelkader’s former classmates at Mona Shores High School.
“It was great to see them. A lot of friends from back in Muskegon. It’s really cool,” Abdelkader said. “They’ve come here a few years now and it’s great to see them. It’s great to see the support from Muskegon. They brought a bunch of cookies, so I’m sure the guys will enjoy those in the locker room.”
The group of friends has grown from five couples last season, to 14 married couples today.
“It’s a smaller city and we know a lot of the people there,” Abdelkader said. “These are friends. I went to high school with some of their kids, my sister is good friends with some of the families, and I play golf with some of them in the summer, so it’s great to see them come down like that. I know they’re geeked about coming down to the pre-game skate and I think they’re all sitting in the Chase Club, so they’re all excited about that tonight, too.”