|Pavel Datsyuk can expect a heavy dose of Valtteri Filppula, at least through the first two games of the first-round series in Tampa Bay. (Photo by Getty Images) |
TAMPA, Fla. – When Valtteri Filppula signed a free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning that is paying him $25 million over five years, he never imagined a playoff series pitting his new team against his old squad.
But over the past five days, it’s been sinking in for Filppula as he and the Lightning prepare for their first-round playoff series against the Red Wings.
“I didn’t really think about it too much,” said Filppula, who just finished his second season with the Lightning. “Obviously, I knew we’re going to play each other a lot (in the regular season). You don’t want to think too far in the playoffs but now it’s happening. We’ll see how it goes, I’m excited. I’m sure it’ll be a fun series.”
Over seven years, Filppula had become a favorite among his Wings’ teammates. He counts Niklas Kronwall, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Pavel Datsyuk among his best friends. The last time the Wings were in town, several former teammates took Filppula out to celebrate his 31st birthday.
But this week all communication ceases to exist.
“I think everybody knows what’s going on this time of year,” Filppula said. “Obviously, I’d like to talk to the guys but we’ll do that more after. I’m sure after the series we’ll go back to normal but obviously playoff time is a little bit different and let them focus on what they’re doing and me for things we’re doing here.”
During his time in Detroit, he produced 100 goals and 251 points in 482 games. He averaged 16 minutes or more in average ice time in six straight seasons, including a career-high 18:15 in 2011-12. That year he also established career highs for games played (81), goals (23), assists (43) and points (66). Filppula has always excelled in the face-off circle during his time in the NHL, posting a 51.7 career win percentage.
Despite playing a full season for the first time in his career, 2014-15 wasn’t Filppula’s best. He finished sixth in scoring for the Lightning, producing 12 goals and 48 points in 82 games. However, he owned a team-worst minus-14 with just 91 shots on goal as a third-line center between Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette.
Defenseman Anton Stralman and center Brian Boyle have Stanley Cup finals experience, but Filppula is the only player in the Lightning’s locker room with a ring. And while he isn’t the most vocal, his younger teammates seek his wisdom and playoff advice.
“He brings that experience,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “He went all the way with Detroit. He said it’s the best feeling you can feel as a hockey player to win that trophy and he knows. We know what it takes to go deep in the playoff run. It’s good to have that experience on the team but we just have to take it step by step and not focus on what lies ahead. We just have to focus on the game tonight and then take care of the rest later.”
Though Filppula’s ffensive production was down, the Wings are still wary of his defensive abilities, which Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he’ll use against Detroit’s top line of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Darren Helm.
“One thing about Val, you give him the toughest assignment and he delivers for you,” Cooper said. “I think you’re going to see Val against Hank. You’re going to see him against Pav. He’ll be out against those guys because he knows how to defend. He’s always on the right side of pucks. I never sit here and say, ‘Oh well, Val you should have 25 goals.’ I’m sure he wants to have that, but he does so many things in different areas. He kills penalties for us, plays on the power play, wins face offs, he’s out in the last minute. I can go on and on. That’s what he does for us and those guys are invaluable for you.”
Zetterberg is aware, too, that he’ll see a heavy dose of his friend through this first-round series.
“We’re going to see him a lot,” Zetterberg said. “He’s a good player and you have to be sharp when you play against him because he skates very well and he’s very solid defensively. But when he gets a chance offensively he’s dangerous.”