The Eastern Conference first-round series between the Red Wings and Tampa Bay Lightning last spring was so good that there will be a rematch this April.
The Red Wings (41-30-11, 93 points) clinched third place in the Atlantic Division on the penultimate day of the season and earned the right to play the Lightning (46-31-5, 97 points), who ended their playoff dreams last spring.
It is the 25th consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup playoffs for Detroit.
In the first round last year, the Red Wings took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, but were outscored 7-2 in the final two games. The Lightning used the momentum from that comeback to march all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals, before losing to the Chicago Blackhawks.
The teams split the four regular-season games in 2015-16, but Lightning won the two most recent games, outscoring Detroit 9-3. The Red Wings managed eight goals in the four games against Tampa Bay.
The Lightning may be a different team from the one that rallied to win last spring because of the absence of forward Steven Stamkos, who is out from 1-3 months after having surgery to remove a blood clot. However, they did not rely on Stamkos much to defeat the Red Wings last year. Tyler Johnson scored six goals in the series; it was the beginning of a two-month coming-out party for the second-year Lightning center. Goalie Ben Bishop had a .922 save percentage in the series.
No player on Detroit had as many points as Johnson had goals in the series. Center Pavel Datsyuk had five points and was tied for the team lead with Tomas Tatar, who had three goals.
Goaltender Petr Mrazek, then the backup, played in every game of the series and had a .925 save percentage. The Red Wings have been leaning on Jimmy Howard, their other goalie, down the stretch of the 2015-16 regular season.
|Ondrej Palat |
LIGHTNING: Stamkos will not be available while he recovers from surgery to remove a blood clot from under his right collarbone, so the Lightning will look to other sources for goals. There has been little consistency in the line pairings this season; injuries and stretches of ineffective play have forced coach Jon Cooper to juggle his lines extensively.
The "Triplets" line of Ondrej Palat, Johnson and Nikita Kucherov will be reunited to start the series. The line has not come close to matching its production from last season but Kucherov has taken another step forward by becoming a 30-goal scorer. Johnson, who scored 13 goals in the playoffs last year, including six against the Red Wings, has been inconsistent for most of the season; however, he has nine goals and 13 assists since the All-Star break and has increased his activity around the goal.
The ongoing saga of Jonathan Drouin has taken an unexpected twist. Drouin, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL draft, was recalled from Syracuse of the American Hockey League in the wake of Stamkos' injury and he'll get every opportunity to prove he is a top-six forward. Vladislav Namestnikov will also likely see an increase in minutes.
Cooper will lean on veterans Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle for their defensive efforts as much as their scoring. J.T. Brown has found his niche as an aggressive skater who is good on the forecheck and has a knack for getting under the skin of opponen
|Dylan Larkin |
RED WINGS: When you look at the names on this roster, it's hard to believe that a struggle to score goals would be a storyline. But that was the case this season; rookie Dylan Larkin led Detroit with 23 goals and Henrik Zetterberg was tops with 50 points, one more than Pavel Datsyuk.
A dip in production from 2014-15 for young forwards Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist was a big reason the Red Wings scored 209 non-shootout goals and had a minus-13 goal differential. Tatar went from 29 to 21 goals and Nyquist from 27 to 17. The Lightning scored 224 non-shootout goals and had a plus-26 differential.
Datsyuk, 37, may be in his final season with Detroit; he told the Detroit Free Press on Sunday that he plans to forego the last season of his three-year contract and return to Russia. He and Zetterberg, 35, remain impact players, but not at the level they were a decade ago. It's a pretty good bet Detroit would have missed the playoffs if not for the surprising first-year season of 19-year-old Larkin.
Justin Abdelkader continued to be a complete forward who plays a two-way, 200-foot physical game. He finished with 19 goals and led the Red Wings with 120 penalty minutes.
The play of third-line center Riley Sheahan and fourth-line center Luke Glendening will be a barometer of playoff success. They have to win their matchups. Sheahan scored some big goals during Detroit's push for the playoffs late in the season.
The experience of Brad Richards will be a plus, as will the speed of rookie Andreas Athanasiou, who was an impact player in limited minutes after being called up from Grand Rapids of the AHL during the season.
|Victor Hedman |
LIGHTNING: As damaging as the Stamkos injury is for the forwards, losing Anton Stralman is a major blow to the defense. Stralman, out with a fractured left fibula sustained on March 25, played more 20 minutes a game, killed penalties, played the point on the power play and was key to the Lightning's puck-possession game.
Victor Hedman remains and he will be asked to log additional minutes in the absence of Stralman. Hedman proved last postseason that he is capable of handling as much work as needed.
Stralman's injury has given Matt Carle a second chance after he was benched early in the season. Carle may never be the player the Lightning hoped he would be when they gave him a six-year contract in 2012, but he's playing a lot of minutes and limiting his mistakes and turnovers.
Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn are the more physical defensemen. Andrej Sustr has flashed a lot of potential this season and is beginning to reward the Lightning's patience.
|Mike Green |
RED WINGS: The lack of a dominating, top-flight defenseman has bedeviled Detroit all season.
Danny DeKeyser may be the closest thing to a No. 1, but those who slot in behind him are more suited for lower-pair duty. DeKeyser is a top-end talent when it comes to a shutdown role and plays almost 22 minutes a game.
Niklas Kronwall was close to a No. 1 at his peak, but he's 35 and has missed time during two stretches this season because of a balky knee.
Mike Green, at least offensively, was a top-pair player for much of his career. Despite leading Detroit's defensemen in points with 35, he has not lived up to the expectations associated with the long-term contract he signed in July.
Kyle Quincey supplies most of the physicality. But as a group, this unit made too many turnovers and coverage miscues for a team looking for success in the playoffs.
|Ben Bishop |
LIGHTNING: Bishop could be a Vezina Trophy finalist again as he continues to break team records.
Bishop led all NHL goaltenders with a 2.06 goals-against average and is in the top three in save percentage (.926) and shutouts (six, a team record). He wound up with 35 wins, down from 40 last season, but it's through no fault of his own; he has lost 12 games in which he allowed two goals or fewer. His save percentage and goals-against-average are the best of his career.
Questions about Bishop's lack of playoff experience were answered last season when he had Game 7 shutouts against the Red Wings and New York Rangers (in the Eastern Conference Final).
Backup Andrei Vasilevskiy has shown flashes of brilliance in his young career. Vasilevskiy started Game 4 of the Final last year when Bishop was out with a groin injury. The Lightning lost 2-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks, but Vasilevskiy made 17 saves and showed that the moment wasn't too big for him.
|Jimmy Howard |
RED WINGS: Detroit's biggest strength for most of the season has turned into a bit of a question mark.
Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard were outstanding early in the season. Howard slumped around the new year, but Mrazek upped his play and was one of the best goalies in the NHL from January until mid-February.
However, his play fell off considerably during the last month of the season, and Howard was in goal for three consecutive big wins in early April that put Detroit in position to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs. He played the final five games of the season and allowed more than two goals twice in his final seven starts.
Mrazek played in the playoffs last spring because of an injury to Howard and more than held his own. This year, it could be Howard who plays in the playoffs after Mrazek was Detroit's No. 1 goaltender for much of the regular season.
LIGHTNING: Things have been a little more challenging for Cooper in his third full season with Tampa Bay. He's had to answer a lot of questions about the Lightning's inconsistency on offense; especially on the power play.
But Cooper just wins; he's won everywhere he's been. He has coached championship teams in the North American Hockey League, the United States Hockey League and the American Hockey League. He signed a multiyear contract extension with the Lightning in December.
Cooper has stressed defensive responsibility much more this season; the Lightning aren't the free-wheeling offensive team they were in the past. It's a strategy he hopes will pay off in the postseason, where the games are tighter and scoring will be at a premium.
RED WINGS: Detroit's run of playoff appearances, now at 25 and counting, did not end under the supervision of Jeff Blashill, who replaced Mike Babcock this season.
While Blashill's system is similar in most ways to that of Babcock, who departed to join the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is a bit different in the way it stresses the involvement of defensemen in the offense. The adjustment period took longer than anticipated and has not generated the hoped-for results.
Detroit's inconsistency during the season may have been partially the result of Blashill, 42, being a rookie NHL coach. But it also says something that he was able to get a team into the playoffs that has problems scoring goals, gives up more goals than it scores and is not as strong as it once was on the blue line.
LIGHTNING: The power play has been abysmal at times this season and finished No. 28 at 15.8 percent, the lowest of any team in the playoffs. Cooper has tried every imaginable combination and even went with five forwards on occasion, but nothing has worked. The loss of Stamkos and Stralman won't make things any easier.
On the bright side, the penalty kill is No. 7 with an 84.0 percent success rate. Boyle, Callahan, Brown and Cedric Paquette take a lot of pride in their ability to kill penalties and block shots in the slot. Garrison and Hedman will also be leaned on heavily.
RED WINGS: A late-season hot streak helped the power play finish in the middle of the pack after being one of the NHL's worst for most of the season.
The biggest differences were the emphasis on having a strong net-front presence, usually Abdelkader or Sheahan, when shots were taken and stressing shots over passes whenever possible.
The free-agent signings of Green and Richards, who has excelled playing the point for his entire career, was supposed to bolster a power play that was one of the best in the NHL in 2014-15, but those moves did not pay dividends until late in the season.
The penalty-killing unit suffered a huge blow with Drew Miller being limited to 28 games because of injuries. Miller, one of the NHL's best penalty-killers, sustained a broken jaw in early December that sidelined him for a month. In his second game back, Miller sustained a season-ending knee injury.
LIGHTNING: Nikita Kucherov, forward – With Stamkos unavailable, the offense will revolve around the playmaking abilities of Kucherov. Despite his 5-foot-11, 180-pound frame, Kucherov isn't afraid to get in front of the net and fight for space even if means taking a lot of physical punishment. He's got quick hands and has focused more this season on putting shots on the net and scoring dirty goals instead of making the fancy plays
Kucherov will likely spend most of his time on a line with Johnson and Palat, but he's had success with Namestnikov and Alex Killorn. If the "Triplets" line isn't working, Cooper will not hesitate to put Kucherov with different linemates.
RED WINGS: Danny DeKeyser, defenseman – DeKeyser has shown the ability to be a shutdown defenseman. He will need to be at his best to handle the top targets from the Lightning.
DeKeyser's outstanding skating ability and his positioning are his biggest assets, and he logged more minutes in late-season games than he had earlier in the season.
WILL WIN IF ...
LIGHTNING: Bishop is dominating in goal. He's been the best player on the ice many nights this season and the Lightning still came up on the losing end. There is no margin of error for Bishop; the Lightning will have to win some very low-scoring games. Tampa Bay cannot afford any more injuries on defense, and Hedman is going to have to get used to playing close to 30 minutes a game.
RED WINGS: Howard or Mrazek rediscovers the level of play he exhibited at points during the season. Datsyuk and Zetterberg also each needs to turn back the clock and play in a manner reminiscent of his prime, and the support players have to win their head-to-head matchups.