DETROIT — Like Justin Abdelkader’s importance to the Red Wings, forward Ryan Callahan’s value on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top forward line cannot be understated.
Playing much of the season alongside first-rate goal scorer Steven Stamkos, Callahan has provided much of the dirty work necessary to open up space for his linemates. With a heavy forecheck and a physical, pestering presence in the offensive zone, Callahan creates plays by being a disruptive force at both ends of the ice.
“He gets the job done,” defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said. “He plays in the gritty areas, he’s not afraid to go in there, he plays hard every night, he’s got a low center of gravity so it’s tougher for a guy like me and my size to get down there and have good body position on him. That’s why I feel it’s a little tougher on smaller, shorter guys. He plays heavy and he’s contributing in a lot of ways I think. He’s a good player.”
At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, there is a significant mismatch between the Wings defenseman Ericsson and the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Callahan in this series. However, the forward is not deterred by the size difference, as he provides edginess to the Lightning lineup being a bit of a pot stirrer throughout the course of a game.
“He plays hard between the whistles and sometimes afterwards he can get in there and try to get under the skin and get someone frustrated,” Ericsson said. “He’s been around the league for a number of years so he knows what fires guys up. He’s got that role and he’s doing it well.”
A trade deadline acquisition last season, Callahan completed his first full stint in Tampa Bay in 2014-15 by posting a career high in assists with 30 and matching a career high with 54 points.
Callahan was the captain of the New York Rangers for three seasons before being traded to Tampa. At 30-years-old, he provides a tremendous source of leadership and experience this time of year with 66 career playoff games.
“I think he’s just a strong player,” Abdelkader said. “He finishes checks, he’s always around the net, right-handed shot, he has playoff experience, he’s kind of a guy that is a typical playoff-type guy who just goes to the hard areas, battles hard and he’s a good player. He was the Rangers captain for a number of years and now he’s a leader down here in Tampa. I would imagine he’s a leader in the locker room as well as on the ice and how he plays.”
The Lightning forward has a pair of assists in this series, including a helper on Alex Killorn’s game-winning goal in Game 2. This playoff style of hockey is tailor made for Callahan much like it has been for Abdelkader in the Wings lineup. For Tampa to get production out of Stamkos — who has been held without a goal in the series — and generate scoring after being shut out in Game 3, the team will need guys like Callahan to be scrappy below the goal line in the offensive zone.
“I mean we haven’t been shutout too often this year,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Unfortunately the two times we have been in this building against the team we gotta play tonight but I don’t think it was one of those, it wasn’t like our guys weren’t competing, like our guys were battling. We were all there, we had some pretty good looks … We talked about it the other night, the game of inches and it was post and cross bar night for us. If we get a couple inches in the other way, who knows? You look at Datsyuk’s goal, he’s not even looking. He doesn’t even know that hits him in the leg and it goes in two inches off the post. This series is that tight and you just gotta keep plugging away and I truly believe you earn your own breaks and eventually, if you just keep competing and stick to your structure they’re gonna go in for you.”
SWAYING MOMENTUM:Heading into a pivotal Game 4 where the Wings could claim a lethal 3-1 series lead or the Lightning could draw even and make it a best-of-3 scenario, the coaches have varying philosophies on momentum and the role it plays in the playoffs.
“I don’t have to remind (the players) but I’ve reminded them for two straight days now and I’ll remind them again,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “I don’t believe in momentum in playoff series to be honest with you. I think it starts with the drop of the puck here tonight until it gets maybe out of reach. But when there’s a series like this and it’s tight, I don’t think that. There’s a new game here tonight. We’ve got to be better than we were last game if we’re gonna have success. They want to be better, we know we have to be better.”
While Babcock said momentum from past games might not create momentum in future contests, Cooper said swings within games certainly do take place.
“Well (Babcock) could be right in some situations maybe momentum in a playoff series,” Cooper said. “I think there’s definitely momentum shifts in games. Do certain things trigger something that maybe gives your team a different mindset? Whether it’s an overtime goal, a big fight, a big hit, just something in games that may shift the tide, I kind of believe that does happen but he’s probably right in the sense with days off between games, sometimes two days off, can momentum go away a little bit? I don’t know. I think for us, we’ve felt pretty good about our game and in this situation we just gotta stick to our structure, our compete and I just think momentum swings your way eventually if you keep doing the right things and for most of this series we have. We just have to keep going.”
Whatever the attitude may be, the fact is Game 4 will be the most important game yet, as the Wings could seriously separate themselves from the Lightning in this series. Inversely, Tampa could take back home-ice advantage before returning to Florida for Game 5 on Saturday.
BARKLEY IS A BOLT: On Tuesday’s "Inside the NBA" show on TNT, basketball analyst Charles Barkley said he was keeping a close eye on the NHL playoffs and gave a shout out in support of the Lightning coach.
“Come on Tampa Bay,” Barkley said. “I ain’t give up on you yet Coach Coop.”
Flattered by the support, Cooper said he met the retired NBA star in Los Angeles during the Lightning’s west coast trip last season.
“You have one perception of a guy that you see on TV and grew up watching him play but after spending a few hours with the guy, I’ll be honest to you is one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met,” Cooper said. “I marveled at just how he is with other people, the stories he told, how genuine he was and there’s a perfect example. I don’t think I’ve spoken to him in six months and for him to be following us and cheering for us just shows how class act the guy is, that’s awesome.”