TAMPA, Fla. – There’s no better time to start a winning streak then the present.
That’s how the Red Wings, who haven’t won back-to-back games since early March, view the start of their first-round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We haven’t gotten the points we wanted lately in the regular season but it’s a new season now and we’ve been in the playoffs before and we’ve got a lot of experience” defenseman Jonathan Ericsson said following Thursday’s morning skate at Amalie Arena. “We’re just looking forward to this game tonight.”
Through the first four months of the regular season, Detroit was the model of consistency. They were the last team to drop back-to-back games in regulation, and with a 36-15-11 record, the Wings were in striking distance of overtaking Montreal at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Since then, the Red Wings finished on a 7-10-3 rollercoaster ride, plummeting to sixth place in the conference, 13 points behind the New York Rangers, who captured the Presidents’ Trophy with 113 points.
The Wings and the New York Islanders are the only playoff teams without back-to-back wins in the last quarter of the season. The Islanders last won consecutively in late February.
The Islanders posted a 4-1 win over the Capitals in Washington on Wednesday. The Wings are looking to do the same in Game 1 tonight in Tampa.
The Red Wings are coming off a 2-0 win in the season finale at Carolina last Saturday. Should they beat the Lightning in Game 1 it will be the first time Detroit has claimed consecutive victories since winning three straight in early March.
“It’s gonna be nice (to get the series starter),” Ericsson said. “Just watched some of the games last night kinda off and on. I can really see the intensity in the games and how fun it is and I think everyone is just dying to get out there and play.”
NO THANKS, MR. MAYOR: Like most Floridians, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a Midwestern transplant, who loves hockey. He always wanted to play the game – joking Wednesday that he once fantasized about centering a line for the Lightning – but lacked skills, and, oh yeah, he couldn’t skate.
But that didn’t stop Hizzonor from predicting a Lightning victory over the Red Wings that will bring changes to Detroit, particularly to Steve Yzerman Drive outside of Joe Louis Arena.
“The street in front of the building is named after him,” Buckhorn said. “It may not be after this series, but we are absolutely confident that with Yzerman there and the history that Steve has with the Detroit Red Wings that victory will be even sweeter for him.”
In his fourth year as mayor, Buckhorn hosted a banner unveiling outside of city hall on Wednesday. Joined by former Lightning star Dave Andreychuk, the mayor not only thinks Tampa Bay will win the best-of-seven game series, he said the Red Wings don’t stand a chance against the league’s highest-scoring team in the regular season.
“We love hanging this banner to celebrate that the Lightning is in the playoffs, that we are about to kick the tar out of the Detroit Red Wings, we’re going to paint this town blue,” Buckhorn said. “We love our Lightning. We’re ready for them to win. We’ve become a hockey town. Whoever would have thought 15 years ago that Tampa Bay would be a hockey town? We are a hockey town. We bleed with these guys and we love what they do. We are the thunder to their lightning. … I’m looking forward to victory over Detroit.”
Left Wing - DET
Goals: 23 | Assists: 21 | Pts: 44
Shots: 154 | +/-: 3
Coach Mike Babcock confirmed that Justin Abdelkader
will miss Game 1 with a hand injury. The Wings’ forward hasn’t played since he blocked a shot nearly two weeks ago in Minnesota.
Babcock indicated this week that without Abdelkader, the Red Wings would begin the series with Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk together with Darren Helm on the top-forward line.
Riley Sheahan will center the second line with Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist; Joakim Andersson will play between Stephen Weiss and Tomas Jurco on the third line; and Luke Glendening will center the fourth line with Drew Miller and rookie Landon Ferraro, who said he learned about making his Stanley Cup playoff debut Game 1 from a newspaper account.
“Then I saw it in the lineup sheet,” Ferraro said, laughing. “I’m confident. I had a really good year in Grand Rapids so far and I feel I played well here in three games. I’ve shown that I can play at this level and I just want to carry that over now.”
PLAYOFF DEBUTS: Besides Ferraro, goalie Petr Mrazek and defenseman Alexy Marchenko, Lightning goalie Ben Bishop will also be making his playoff debut tonight.
The former Vezina Trophy finalist, who allowed eight goals in four games against the Wings, said he isn’t approaching the playoffs any differently than he would if it were a regular-season game.
“Just don’t change anything,” he said. “It’s still the same game so gonna show up the same time and do the same thing before any other game.”
The Wings have the playoff experience that’s lacking in the Lightning dressing room, but Bishop says that keeping the emotions in check will go a long way in this series.
“Just keep doing what we’ve been doing all year,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a different time of the year but we just gotta continue what we were doing all season that made us successful and I don’t think we’ll change anything.”
HEALTHY HANK CAN BE TROUBLE:
Left Wing - DET
Goals: 17 | Assists: 49 | Pts: 66
Shots: 227 | +/-: -6
Lightning 6-foot-6 defenseman Victor Hedman is looking forward to matching wits with Zetterberg, a fellow countryman, who can cause headaches for opposing defenses.
But Zetterberg, the Red Wings’ leading scoring during the regular season, isn’t the only player that concerns Hedman.
“It’s a lot of fun to be out there and play against one of the best players in the world with him and Datsyuk,” said Hedman, who played with Zetterberg for Sweden in the 2012 World Championships. “Have to be on your toes every time they’re on the ice. It’s a fun challenge. They’re high-skill players with very high hockey I.Q. and they can find seams that you don’t really think are there. That’s a big threat, very calm with the puck and can find those seams. High-end players that can be difference makers in the series. It’s going to be a big challenge but a lot of fun at the same time.”
RIGHTY-LEFTY: Marchenko, the Wings 6-foot-3 right-handed shooting defenseman, is in tonight for Brendan Smith, who is a healthy scratch for Game 1 lineup. Marchenko, who played 13 games during the regular season will be partnered primarily with Kyle Quincey, give Detroit two pairs of balanced defensive combinations.
It’s a formula that worked well for Babcock and Team Canada in their run to gold in the Sochi Olympics.
Detroit’s other righye-lefty pair is Marek Zidlicky and Danny DeKeyser. Meanwhile, the top defensive pair of Ericsson and Niklas Kronwall is both lefties.
“It has an effect because they’re good; if they were no good it wouldn’t matter if they were righty or lefty,” Babcock said. “So the priority is they’re real good players. I just think it makes it so much easier to execute in tight quarters in the D zone, makes it easier to get through the neutral zone. A number of years ago when there was more room all over the ice it wasn’t as big a deal, now it’s a way bigger deal, so it just makes it easier for you to create.
“The other thing is on offense, in the offensive zone, if you want your D to get the puck to the net, the up-down one-timer is an easy play you can get off the wall and you can get it to the net. On your off-side, you get it, you rim it to the bottom and you start all over again, so I think there’s a number of things in the game that make it easier for you to create offense, to make good plays with the puck.”