BRANDON, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Lightning scored more goals (262) and won more home games (32) than any club in the National Hockey League.
Those accomplishments are nice, but once the Eastern Conference quarterfinals series begins Thursday night they’ll mean as much as the Red Wings’ home winning streak in 2011-12 meant to them that spring.
That season, the Red Wings won a league record 23 straight home games. But two months later that couldn’t win a postseason game on home ice and were drubbed by Nashville in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Wings hope to turn the tables on the Lightning in their best-of-seven series, which begins Thursday at Amalie Arena.
“I always think that the regular season is one thing and the postseason is one thing,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “Now everyone starts from scratch and we want to play our game, obviously, and we feel that we’ve got a good chance.”
The Wings can boaster their chances against the Lightning – who also set new franchise marks with 50 wins and 108 points this season – by playing superb defense in front of rookie goalie Petr Mrazek, who will start Game 1.
“They’ve got a lot of speed,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said. “Their forwards are really quick and we’ve seen that for the first four or five games that we played them in the regular season. They really push the pace and they really skate so we’re gonna have to know what’s going on out there at all times.”
The Lightning have an acumen for scoring in bunches. Led by captain Steven Stamkos, who shared the team lead with 72 points and reached the 40-goal milestone for the fourth time in his career, they have high-powered weapons in Tyler Johnson (29 goals), Nikita Kucherov (29), Ryan Callahan (24) and Ondrej Palat (16).
Combined, the Lighting’s five leading scorers tallied 141 goals – that’s just 12 less than the entire Buffalo Sabres roster produced in 82 regular-season games.
Limiting mistakes at center ice and in their own zone have been points of emphasis in practice this week for the Wings. They know puck possession will be key in this series, especially against a band of snipers that look to capitalize on defensive miscues.
“They’re very skilled,” defenseman Kyle Quincey said. “Their numbers don’t lie, they’re very good offensive and we’re going to have our work cut out for us. We know it’s a great challenge for us as defensemen and forwards playing the right way. We have a lot of respect for this team, so we know if we turn the puck over it’s probably going to be a short series and they might win. So we’re concentrating on not turning the puck over and just making it hard for him to score.”
Since recalling rookie defenseman Alexey Marchenko from Grand Rapids last Friday, the Wings defensive pairings will have a different look with two right-handed shots on the blue line for Game 1.
Kronwall, who sat out the season finale at Carolina, will be back with Jonathan Ericsson as the top pairing. Meanwhile, DeKeyser and Quincey, who have played together for more than a full season have been split up to accommodate the rightie-leftie combinations that coach Mike Babcock has always desired. Quincey will begin the series with Marek Zidlicky on the right side, while DeKeyser and Marchenko will make up the other pairing.
“Going from right to left is a little different, I haven’t played left in a long time but it’s nice,” Quincey said. “There’s positives and negatives to play left versus right but Z is obviously a great defenseman, a veteran guy, very good offensively. It’s a little different but looking forward to it.
“I know Danny inside-out, I know where he’s going to be all the time on the ice. We have a real good thing going. But we just got to make it the same way with Z.”
Defense - DET
Goals: 2 | Assists: 29 | Pts: 31
Shots: 89 | +/-: 11
When the Wings and Lightning series gets underway, 17 players will be very familiar with one another.
That’s because many of the younger players from both rosters faced off in the 2013 Calder Cup finals with the parent clubs’ American Hockey League affiliates – the Grand Rapids Griffins and Syracuse Crunch.
For Johnson, getting another crack at the Wings’ franchise, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, is a thrill, and will bring instant heat to the bubbly rivalry.
“Yeah I think so. Whenever we battle and play against each other it’s a test,” Johnson said. “Every game we’ve ever had against them has been tough. They’re fun games to have. You like to play in those games. It’s going to be a great series and I’m looking forward to it.”
Those who competed in the Calder Cup finals two years ago were: DeKeyser, Mrazek, Marchenko, Joakim Andersson, Luke Glendening, Tomas Jurco, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar and Landon Ferraro for Grand Rapids; and Johnson, Palat, Mark Barberio, J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov, Cedric Paquette and Andrej Sustr for Syracuse.
The Griffins won the six-game series 4-2.
“There’s a lot of players that were in that series from two years ago,” DeKeyser said. “I think everybody by now pretty much knows each other, both teams know each other. So we’re just gonna have to go out there and compete and win battles and try to win the games that way.”
ON THE OTHER SIDE: For the last few months of the season it looked like the Red Wings’ first-round opponent could be the Lightning, setting up a uniquely uncomfortable matchup for a Detroit hockey icon.
“You kind of saw this coming,” Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman said. “I said earlier, there’s probably other teams I’d rather be playing, but I figured at some point in my managerial career if I could survive we’d probably face one another.”
Nobody has scored more playoff goals or compiled more points in the postseason in a Red Wings sweater than Stevie Y, the Captain. He won three Stanley Cup championships as a player and suited up for 196 postseason games, but now that he’s on the other side it’s emotion.
“I have very close relationships with everyone in the organization, the majority of people and will continue that and will have that forever, I hope, and everything that we went through as an organization,” Yzerman said. “As we get into this series, we both want to win. Our organization wants to win, the Red Wings’ organization wants to win, our fans want to win, the Red Wings fans want to win. I expect it to be very good hockey. Our team plays a similar style to the Red Wings, but at the same time, both teams have very talented players. I expect it to be good hockey and a good battle.”
Asked about facing Yzerman in this series, Babcock said, “Steve and I aren’t playing. … He’s a good man. I’ve got a ton of respect for him. He’s competitive and so am I so I want to win and he wants to wins.”