DETROIT — As anticipated since mid-March, the Red Wings will face-off against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, a match-up where both teams possess similar playing styles that should make for a fast-paced, action-packed series.
Heading into the final day of the regular season, the Wings — having already clinched a playoff berth — still had to wait for results to trickle in as they could have found themselves in any one of three different playoff series match-up scenarios. Drawing the Lightning, as many have speculated in the closing weeks, was a relief for Henrik Zetterberg.
“Obviously it’s nice to know who we’re playing,” he said. “We’ve played them a lot. It’s going to be a tough match-up for us. We’re looking forward to it.”
With a 1-2-1 record against Tampa Bay in the season series, Zetterberg said the Wings start fresh with a clean slate on Thursday.
“Obviously playoffs is a new season,” he said. “Everyone just restarts but we know if we play the way we should we have a good chance and hopefully we can do that.”
Building off of a 4-0 shutout against the Lightning the last time these two teams took the ice, the Wings — and goalie Petr Mrazek — proved they are capable of neutralizing the NHL’s top offense that averaged 3.16 goals for per game. Mrazek turned away 23 shots in that game and in his last six wins has a 0.50 goals-against average, a .982 save percentage and three shutouts. When the 23-year-old is on top of his game, he is dialed in and has the potential to steal not just a game but also a series for the Wings.
“That is not a question for me,” Mrazek said about the possibility of starting in net for the first round. “I said it’s day by day, game by game and the season is over we’ll see what happens.”
While the goaltending is subject to change, the opponent is set in stone.
The high-powered Lightning offense is an intimidating foe with four lines capable of scoring goals in bunches. Superstar goal scorer Steven Stamkos coupled with two-way forward Ryan Callahan on the top line has produced four goals this season against the Wings. Callahan is a pest on both ends of the ice with a disruptive forecheck on one end and an ability to block shots and clog shooting lanes defensively. Callahan’s willingness to get in puck battles and do the dirty work allows Stamkos to find open space where the Lightning's center can be lethal, totaling 43 goals and finishing second in the NHL scoring race.
Both Jonathan Drouin and Alex Killorn have spent time on the wing opposite Callahan, working in two very different capacities. Drouin is a smaller play-making type at 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds with 28 assists while Killorn is a big-bodied presence at 6-foot-2, 193 pounds, and can finish around the net with 15 goals this season.
Nicknamed the Triplets line, Tyler Johnson centers the second line with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. All three forwards are under the age of 25 with no more than three seasons worth of experience in the league. However, the young trio has combined to score 73 of the team’s 259 goals and has been one of the most productive lines in the league.
Veterans Valtteri Filppula, Brendan Morrow and Brian Boyle have been a part of successful playoff runs, combining for four Stanley Cup finals appearances. Filppula went in back-to-back seasons with the Wings while Morrow was part of a Dallas Stars team in 2000 that lost to New Jersey in six games. The most recent one, Boyle, was on a New York Rangers team last season that fell short against Los Angeles.
Pair that playoff experience with the young exuberance of J.T. Brown and rookies Cedric Paquette and Vladislav Namestnikov among the third and fourth lines, the bottom-six forwards can be just as dangerous as their top-six counterparts.
While the offense is oozing with success, the back end limps into the postseason with injuries to three of its biggest contributors. Veteran defensemen Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn have been sidelined for three and four weeks respectively and could miss the first-round playoff series. Andrej Sustr also suffered an upper-body injury but is expected to be back in time for Thursday’s Game 1.
A susceptible blue line is exposed with rookies like Nikita Nesterov and Luke Witkowski who combine for just 43 games of experience. Top-pair d-men Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman will have to log major minutes to compensate for the youth on the back end. An overwhelming forecheck by the Wings can wear down the opposing veterans logging serious ice time and can force young players into ill-advised turnovers.
At 6-foot-7, Ben Bishop is a towering figure in net as the tallest goalie in the league. With an impressive 40-13-5 record, Bishop has a 2.32 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. The 28-year-old was in net for all four regular-season meetings with the Wings. Bishop can be vulnerable at times, giving up three goals on less than 25 shots in his first meeting with the Wings on Nov. 9th, and his last meeting with the Wings on Mar. 28th. Getting traffic in front of Bishop and limiting his visibility will help counteract the amount of net his large frame takes up. Expect forwards like Justin Abdelkader and Riley Sheahan to be a force in front of the crease and chew up space.
Having weeks to prepare for this match-up bodes well. While it wasn’t a guarantee, the writing seemed to be on the wall even on Mar. 20 — the last time the Wings were in Tampa — that it wouldn’t be the team’s last trip to the Sunshine State. Yes, the Lightning has an overwhelming offense that can score in a variety of ways from a wealth of sources. However, a depleted defensive corps can be fatal this time of year and even the most dominant of offenses can be stymied by good goaltending.
The Wings have proven an ability to compete with some of the league’s best teams, going 8-10-6 against Eastern Conference playoff teams with 10 losses by just one goal. In April though, it’s not about competing anymore but about winning. Don’t ever count out the Wings in their 24th consecutive playoff appearance, as this team has already surprised many including coach Mike Babcock who once said this group was the most talented he’s had since 2008-09.