BRANDON, Fla. – Jeff Blashill has noticed a little extra pep in Riley Sheahan’s step lately.
“He's a big body so sometimes through the course of the year that can wear on you, that's a lot of body to carry around the ice – especially 200 feet – the way that he plays a complete game,” Blashill said. “So I think through the course of the year there's probably times where he doesn't have as much jump.”
Sheahan has definitely upped his game recently.
The 24-year-old center has produced more in the last month than he did throughout the rest of the season, collecting five goals and nine points with a plus-5 rating in the final 13 games. In his first 54 games, Sheahan had seven goals, six assists and a minus-14 rating.
He credits his improved play to a new found comfort level in his increased role as a net-front presence, especially on the power play.
“I think it’s just a little extra edge to get to the net and in front of the goalie’s eyes,” he said. “I think all the guys are bearing down and especially that last little run that we had to make it to the playoffs. So I think a mixture of a bunch of things and feeling comfortable out there and playing with some good players.”
As the Wings’ tallest forward, the 6-foot-3 Sheahan will have his work cut out for him in Detroit’s first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning and their 6-foot-7 goalie Ben Bishop.
“I don’t think he really likes chaos in front of him,” Sheahan said. “He’s a big guy, he can see over a lot of people, so it will be huge for us to get pucks there and create some havoc. Scoring some dirty goals will be big and just being in front of that net will be huge for us.”
Sheahan showed his acumen for setting screens in front of opposing goalies last Saturday, and he was rewarded for it with a defected goal in the 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers. The goal established a new single-season best for Sheahan, who finished the season with 14 goals and 25 points in 81 games.
Blashill’s hope is that Sheahan can keep going in the same direction – not only as a strong net-front presence but with his overall contributions – as the Red Wings’ playoff series kicks off with Game 1 Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
“I'd say over the last month he's really skating well and when he skates well, he just gets himself just a little bit more involved,” Blashill said. “He's in the forecheck, good stick on puck, he's winning puck battles, he's got the puck on his stick more. When he's got the puck on his stick, he's got real good ability, he can protect it well and he can make plays in small areas. The other thing I'd say is he's provided a good net-front presence. That's one area as a team I think we've improved in and he's certainly been a big factor in that.”
The club would like to see the others on the Sheahan’s third line get their offensive production kicked into gear. Forwards Tomas Tatar went from scoring a career-high 29 goals last season to 21 goals this season, and in a year’s time Gustav Nyquist regressed from 27 to 17 goals.
“They're different players in terms of what they bring to the table but all of them need to make sure they do a good job skating, do a good job winning puck battles and execute,” Blashill said. “I don't think there's any magic necessarily when it comes to the playoffs. We talk about getting the best from everybody, nothing more, nothing less. We don't need Superman efforts, we just need everybody's best. If we get everyone's best, we think we're a real good hockey team."
EURO TWINS REUNITED:
Left Wing - DET
Goals: 13 | Assists: 37 | Pts: 50
Shots: 214 | +/-: -15
It looks like two veterans will be reunited on the same forward line when the Red Wings open their first-round playoff series against the Lightning on Wednesday night.
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who played apart for the majority of the season, skated on the same line at the Red Wings practice at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon on Tuesday.
“That's how we practiced today so we'll make decisions tomorrow on the finality of the lineup but that's how we practiced today,” Blashill said.
If the two are to start the series together with forward Justin Abdelkader than rookie Dylan Larkin will drop to the second line with Brad Richards and center Darren Helm.
The bottom six remains the same as Saturday’s season finale at Madison Square Garden.
Blashill believes by pairing Datsyuk and Zetterberg it gives his club the best chance to beat the Lightning to four wins.
"We'd still like to get two percent better,” the Wings’ coach said. “I think we're on a quest to continue to try to improve as a hockey team. We grinded our way into the playoffs but we'd still like to continue to be better and sometimes those two together, the spark that they provide, not only each other but our team, can be a real positive thing so we'll see."
JOHNSON IMPROVES: With Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman ruled out for the first-round series the last thing the Lightning needed was to lose somebody else.
Tyler Johnson suffered an upper-body injury in the first period of Saturday’s season finale at Montreal when the center was shoved into the end boards rather violently by Canadiens defenseman Greg Pateryn.
Johnson did not return to the game and his availability for the start of the playoffs is still in question. However, he did return to practice Tuesday, skating for the first time since Saturday’s hit.
"I'm still trying to decide,” said Johnson, when asked if he’ll play in Game 1. “It's up to the coaching staff, see how I feel tomorrow. It's kind of just different every day."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper called Johnson a game-time decision, adding, “He looked pretty good today. We’ll see how he feels. It’s up to him and the doctors if he can go.”
RUBBER MATCH: One of many storylines surrounding the Red Wings-Lightning opening round series is the coaches. Blashill and Cooper have been friends since they got into coaching during their junior days in the USHL.
Blashill’s Indiana Ice defeated Cooper’s Green Bay Gamblers in the 2009 semifinals before winning the Clark Cup that season. A year later, Cooper returned the favor, knocking off his friend’s team in the semis before claiming the 2010 Cup.
“This is kind of the rubber match,” Cooper said. “I just wish we weren’t playing each other till the final. I know that’s unrealistic, but to play in the first round kind of sucks because one of us isn’t going to advance.”
Blashill seemed fine with facing his friend early, opposed to later rounds.
“I know for certain I’ll want the bragging rights come the summer.” Blashill said. “It’ll be fun. I’ve faced against friends different times through my career whether it be pro hockey, college hockey or junior hockey. Him and I have had a couple different series where we’ve battled. It’s enjoyable to compete against someone that’s a good friend.”