DETROIT — With a return trip to the Sunshine State for back-to-back games against the Florida teams before playing the St. Louis Blues at home at the end of the week, the focus will be on Tampa Bay Friday night due to the potential playoff implications the match-up presents.
It should come as no surprise that the Lightning and Red Wings are so close in the standings. Separated by just four points — the Wings with two games in hand — the two teams could very easily be battling for home-ice advantage in the No. 2 versus No. 3 match-up in the Atlantic Division playoff series in mid-April.
“Playoff series is still quite some time away but I think that’s what we’re gearing towards,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “So all these games, we’re trying look at things what we can do better, build off of it. I think that’s the biggest thing is we gotta build off of it and then once we get back on that roll and continue to get our energy back into our games, I think it’s going to help us out that much more.”
With former Wings captain Steve Yzerman at the helm as general manager of the Lightning, the two organizations have glaring similarities in terms of structure. In fact, Tampa Bay looks like a younger version of a Wings' organization in search of a 24th consecutive playoff berth. To emulate that success, Yzerman has spent the last five seasons assembling a team in a very familiar manner.
The Lightning has 11 players on their roster that were drafted by the organization. With a solid core of players, they have been able to hold onto and develop their draft picks like Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin.
Additionally, finding some hidden gems like undrafted free agent center Tyler Johnson — who leads the team with 65 points — and 2011 seventh-round draft pick Ondrej Palat — who has back-to-back 50-point seasons — eerily resembles some of the talent the Wings have grown accustomed to discovering with late-round selections.
Fill in some holes with the blockbuster trade of Ryan Callahan at the 2014 trade deadline as well as the moves to get goalie Ben Bishop in 2012 and defenseman Jason Garrison last offseason. Being active in free agency, acquiring veterans like Brenden Morrow, Matthew Carle and former Wings center Valtteri Filppula, and the roster make-up of the Lightning resembles many of the Detroit teams assembled by general manager Ken Holland.
“They have a bunch of players, Johnson, Palat, (Nikita) Kucherov, Filppula,” center Riley Sheahan said. “They have so many forwards and they’re really deep. It’s definitely important having secondary scoring.”
The offensive depth of the Lightning presents quite the challenge and forwards like Sheahan will have to play an important role of neutralizing some of Tampa Bay’s weapons while being able to generate offense as well.
At 6-foot-6, Bishop presents quite a large obstacle on the back-end for the Wings offense. He eclipsed 30 wins for the second straight season and maintains a .915 save percentage and 2.32 goals against average with a 6-1-1 record in his last eight starts.
“The biggest thing is getting in front of him and pushing him back into his net, try and take his sight of the puck away,” Sheahan said. “I think any goalie, if you get shots on him and you play rebounds and try to keep peppering him, he’ll eventually break down.”
Cap it all off with strong AHL affiliates, and both organizations have a pipeline of potential as the Grand Rapids Griffins and Syracuse Crunch — first-place in their respective divisions — met in the 2013 Calder Cup finals two seasons ago.
Nine Wings currently on the roster were on that Griffins team that defeated the Crunch 4-2 in a best-of-7 series, including Sheahan. He said there’s a lot of familiarity between the two teams at the NHL level with eight Lightning players having competed in that Calder Cup Finals as well.
“I mean it helps,” he said. “You’re familiar with their style of play. You know their habits, it does make it a little easier.”
Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Luke Glendening, Joakim Andersson, Danny DeKeyser and Tomas Jurco recorded at least one point in that series against the Crunch. Petr Mrazek started in net for all six games of the finals while forward Teemu Pulkkinen was a healthy scratch.
With very similar internal structure, the final two meetings between the Lightning and Wings on Friday and again on March 28, may have serious playoff implications should the two teams meet in the first round. Tampa Bay is one of the better home teams in the NHL with a powerful offense, so drawing home-ice in the series would be beneficial for the Wings to have last-change and the ability to exploit certain line match-ups.
Nyquist tallied five points in six games as a member of that Griffins team and is now a major contributor for the Wings. He said that history with Lightning players has sparked a bit of a rivalry between the two clubs and with very similar playing styles, the difference could come down to the simple things.
“Take care of the puck,” Nyquist said. “I think we’re both teams that want to play with speed. I think they’re a fast team. We wanna be a fast team. I think whoever executes in the D-zone and doesn’t turn the puck over for the other team to get transition on you. I think that’s going to be key against a team like that, that likes to take advantage as soon as you turn over the puck that they’re going for offense. That’s gonna be a key area.”
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
THURSDAY at FLORIDA (31-23-14): The fourth and final meeting of the regular season, as the Panthers lead the series with a 2-1-0 record. Trailing the Boston Bruins (82) and Washington Capitals (82) by six points with 14 games left heading into Sunday’s match-ups, Florida still has an outside shot at a playoff position with strong performances down the stretch. Off to a 4-1-1 record in March, the Panthers appear to be making that push for the postseason which presents a dangerous match-up when the Wings visit the Sunshine State for the second time this season. The Wings’ lone win over the Panthers came at the BB&T Center on Jan. 27, but it took five goals in order to do so. Florida will be much better defensively this time around as the team looks to contend for a playoff spot.
PLAYER TO WATCH: At 43 years old, Jaromir Jagr has tapped into the fountain of youth producing 12 goals and 34 points in 63 games this season. With an NHL career that began before nine of his Panthers teammates were even born, Jagr is one goal away from passing Phil Esposito for fifth all-time in goals (717) and nine points shy of tying Ron Francis for fourth all-time (1,798). Florida is the eighth different team that Jagr has played for in 21 NHL seasons and since being acquired by the Panthers on Feb. 26, has produced five points in six games with the team producing a 5-1-1 record. The grizzled veteran could fuel the Panthers’ playoff push in the final weeks of the regular season.
FRIDAY at TAMPA BAY (42-21-7): Tied with the Nashville Predators for most wins at home with 26, the Lightning are tough to beat in their own building. The Wings come to Tampa Bay with the Lightning in the midst of a season-long six-game home stand. While their 24th ranked power play doesn’t impress at 13.8 percent overall, it jumps to a 22.4 percent efficiency in home games and 13 different player have produced a goal on the man advantage this season. Tampa Bay is a tough out and hasn’t lost a game by more than a goal since a 6-3 loss to St. Louis on Feb. 12, so for the Wings to earn a victory, they’ll have to jump out early on the Lightning. Tampa Bay has a 29-0-2 record when leading after two periods, so making a move early in the contest will be crucial.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Tyler Johnson has established himself as an offensive force in addition to the Lightning’s Steven Stamkos. Johnson leads the team with 40 assists and 65 points with the NHL’s third-best plus-31 rating. The 24-year-old had a seven-game point streak snapped on Thursday against Boston and that streak matched his career-high, set earlier this season. Johnson has been held without a point in consecutive games and is due for a big performance, as he hasn’t been kept off the score sheet very often this season. Johnson is eighth in the NHL in points and is the only undrafted player in the top-20. The 5-foot-9, 182-pounder has a goal and an assist in two games against the Wings this season.
SUNDAY vs. ST. LOUIS (43-20-5): The Blues will be nearing the end of a season-long six-game road trip when they visit Detroit at the end of the week. St. Louis has been a good road team with a 19-11-3 record and has won seven of its last 10 away games. The Blues claim the league’s best power play on the road, converting 25.5 percent of their opportunities in away games and has out-shot their opponents by 10-or-more shots in each of the last four games. The team’s plus-124 shot differential in away games is second only to the New York Islanders. In contention for the top spot in the Western Conference and the league’s Presidents’ Trophy, the Blues were two points out of first-place in the Central Division heading into Sunday’s match-up with the Dallas Stars. The Wings have scored a power-play goal in eight straight games but may struggle against a Blues PK unit that has killed off 23 of the last 24 penalties.
PLAYER TO WATCH: One point ahead of Johnson, Vladimir Tarasenko is the youngest player in the top-10 in scoring. At 23-years-old, Tarasenko is one of four players in the NHL with 30 goals and 30 assists this season and has a team-leading plus-28 rating. The Russian became the youngest player in Blues history to produce 30 goals and 60 points since Brendan Shanahan did so in the 1991-92 season. Tarasenko had an assist on the game-tying goal against the Wings with 48 seconds left in regulation before falling 3-2 in overtime on Jan. 15. The right winger has two goals and six points in his last six games and has been the most consistent player for St. Louis all season.