TAMPA, Fla. – Playoff seeding is still in doubt, and for Lightning captain Steven Stamkos that makes the Red Wings – who are in a battle to reach the postseason for a 25th consecutive season – perhaps more dangerous than usual.
“If you look at their group over there they have a great group of veteran guys and some great young talent that’s coming this year and have played extremely well,” the Lightning’s leading scorer said following Tuesday’s morning skate at Amalie Arena.
With 10 games remaining, the Red Wings are clinching to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. But with a regulation win tonight the Wings would trail the second-place Lightning by just two points in the Atlantic Division.
“We’ve had tight games with them all year,” Stamkos said. “You go back to the playoff series, arguably our closest and toughest playoff series with obviously the exception of Chicago, the games that we’ve played this year have been tight. They had a big comeback win in Florida. They’re feeling good about their game. We have to be a team that comes out and matches their effort level and it’s going to be a good challenge for us tonight.”
Tyler Johnson, who has a goal and an assist in the three-game season series, knows the Wings’ personnel better than most. He was one of the Lightning’s players who lost in the 2013 AHL Calder Cup finals against the Wings’ minor-league farm hands.
The 25-year-old Johnson said it’s quite easy to get up for games against the Wings.
“I think some of the guys who played in the AHL have a better understanding of (the Detroit-Tampa Bay rivalry) playing in the Calder Cup against them, and then throughout the seasons and playing against them in the playoffs as well,” he said. “I personally think as a team that we grew the most when we played Detroit in that series. That was one of the toughest series we ever played in and that really got our team ready for the rest of the playoffs there.”
The Red Wings have dropped five straight regular-season decisions in Tampa Bay, while posting a 2-7-1 record in the last 10 games, including last spring’s opening-round playoff series won by the Lightning in seven games.
But Detroit has 2-1-0 in the season series, having posted 3-1 and 2-1 wins in the opening month of the season at Joe Louis Arena.
The Lightning stormed to a 1-0 lead in the opening minutes of the fourth and final meeting between these clubs in the regular season. Ondrej Palat set up the scoring play when he lofted a saucer pass to Erik Condra, who slipped behind Niklas Kronwall before wristing a 20-footer over Jimmy Howard’s left catching glove.
The Red Wings have now surrendered the first goal in nine of the last 10 games.
Tampa Bay opened up a two-goal lead when Vladislav Namestnikov slid a rebound between Howard’s legs at 9:55. It was the Lightning’s 12th sot of the period.
The period turned chippy as Cedric Paquette took runs at a few Red Wings, including Kyle Quincey and Luke Glendening on the same shift. Quincey got up slowly after the Lightning center sent him into the boards behind the Wings’ net. Moments later Paquette drew Glendening into a roughing penalty that the Wings managed to kill successfully.
TAMPA BAY 2, DETROIT 0
SCORING: 1. TBL, Condra (Palat, Boyle), 1:47; 2. TBL, Namestnikov (Brown), 9:55.
PENALTIES: 1. DET, Quincey (roughing), 7:17; 2. TBL, Paquette (roughing), 7:17; 3. DET, Glendening (roughing), 15:34.
SHOTS: Detroit 7, Tampa Bay 15.
Coach Jeff Blashill saw enough of Howard after the veteran surrendered a fluky goal to Stamkos just 33 seconds into the middle period. Stamkos’s 34th goal of the season came as he tried to make a pass into the slot but the puck caromed off Jonathan Ericsson and passed Howard who never saw it.
For Howard, who made 13 saves on 16 shots, it was the third time this season he was lifted. He was also relieved from starts against New Jersey (Dec. 22) and Winnipeg (Dec. 29).
Brendan Smith tried giving a spark to the Wings when he challenged J.T. Brown. Both tossed a few punches without doing any damage and received fighting majors for their efforts. It was Smith’s second fight this season.
The Wings solved big Ben Bishop with their third power-play goal in the last two games. Standing at the left side of the crease, Justin Abdelkader scored on a rebound from Henrik Zetterberg’s shot. It was Abdelkader’s sixth power-play goal of the season, but his first since Dec. 10.
Petr Mrazek had to made a heady save when with 5:19 left the Lightning’s Johnson slipped into the zone, splitting Smith and Mike Green before getting a shot off that the Wings’ goalie smothered.
Almost like they did in Florida on Saturday, the Wings got a lift with a late goal in the second period. Darren Helm used Alex Killorn as a screen the slot and whipped an off-balance shot between Bishop’s legs at 15:25.
Pavel Datsyuk and Anthony Mantha picked up assists on the Wings’ second goal of the game. For Mantha, how is playing in his fourth career game for the Wings, the assist is his first point in in the league.
The Wings put themselves in a pickle when Green and Abdelkader worked their way to the penalty box just 12 seconds apart giving the Lightning a 5-on-3 man advantage. And it didn’t take Tampa Bay long to regain a two-goal lead when Nikita Kucherov tapped a pass/shot from Johnson behind Mrazek.
Niklas Kronwall was called for slashing with 1:13 left in the period. The Wings still must kill off 47 seconds of a Lightning power play at the start of the third period.
TAMPA BAY 4, DETROIT 2
SCORING: 1. TBL, Stamkos (Kucherov, Hedman), 0:33; 2. DET, Abdelkader PPG (Zetterberg, Kronwall), 8:08; 3. DET, Helm (Datsyuk, Mantha), 15:25; 4. TBL, Kucherov PPG (Johnson, Stamkos), 17:42.
PENALTIES: 1. DET, Smith (fighting), 2:21; 2. TBL, Brown (fighting), 2:21; 3. Killorn (roughing), 6:34; 4. DET, Green (tripping), 16:41; 5. Abdelkader (cross-checking), 16:53; 6. DET, Kronwall (slashing), 18:47.
SHOTS: Detroit 9 (16), Tampa Bay 12 (27).
The Lightning reestablished a three-goal lead when Palat went hard to the net and tapped a backhander off a rebound from Johnson’s shot. Palat’s second goal of the game was his 15th of the season.
The Wings trailed by three goals twice in this game. It was the seventh time in the past 10 games that Detroit has been down by two goals or more. They trailed Florida (March 19), Philadelphia (March 15), Winnipeg (March 10), Columbus (March 8), and Chicago (March 6, March 2).
The Red Wings now head home where they’ll play the next three at Joe Louis Arena beginning Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens.
Condra capped the scoring with his second goal of the game at 16:56.
Coupled with Philadelphia’s shoot out loss at Columbus, the Red Wings and Flyers have 84 points each, but because the Flyers have one game in hand they leapfrog Detroit for the second and final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
TAMPA BAY 6, DETROIT 2
SCORING: 1. TBL, Palat (Johnson, Hedman), 1:03; 2. TBL, Condra (Boyle), 16:56.
PENALTIES: 1. DET, Nyquist (slashing), 5:21; 2. TBL, Namestnikov (slashing), 5:21.
SHOTS: Detroit 9 (25), Tampa Bay 7 (34).