Quest for the Stanley Cup Begins Tonight for Detroit

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It came down to the last week of the regular season but the Detroit Red Wings were able to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 24th consecutive season. With last Saturday’s 2-0 win over Carolina the Red Wings assured themselves a third place finish in the Atlantic Division and a first round matchup with Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning. General Manager Steve Yzerman, a former captain of the Detroit Red Wings, has turned the Lightning into a legit Stanley Cup contender and this will be the first ever playoff meeting between the two clubs. Let us take a look at each position group and preview what should be an exciting series.

Forwards

Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk bring with them a combined 270 playoff games of experience but it might be the younger players on Detroit that will decide this series. Tomas Tatar led the Red Wings in goals during the season with 29 while Gustav Nyquist came in second with 27 goals scored. Tampa Bay may not have the experience that the Red Wings have but they more than make up for it with offensive firepower. The Lightning led the league in total goals scored during the season and finished second in goal differential. Tampa Bay is led by team captain Steven Stamkos who scored 43 goals during the regular season. Young center Tyler Johnson also performed at an amazing rate, leading the team in total points with 72, along with an incredible +33 in the plus/minus department. Jonathan Drouin, the third overall pick in the 2013 draft, could also present problems for the Detroit defense as he recorded 28 assists on the season. Possibly the biggest matchup to watch could be how head coach Mike Babcock defends Stamkos. It will be interesting to see how he handles the star forward in Tampa Bay as the Lightning will have last change and will be able to dictate the matchup. While in Detroit, look for Babcock to throw a heavy dose of Datsyuk and Zetterberg at Stamkos as Detroit’s “Euro Twins” are considered to be two of the top two-way forwards in the game.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

While the Lightning have the offensive firepower to best the Red Wings, Detroit has some of the best defensive-minded forwards in the league led by Pavel Datsyuk. In a series where the matchups are so close, home ice may be the difference meaning Tampa Bay gets the nod in this department.

Defensemen

While the Red Wings’ defensive play has been lacking as of late, Detroit does have the superior talent at this position when matched up with the Lightning. Trade deadline acquisition Marek Zidlicky, who came over from New Jersey, gives the Red Wings the scoring touch they need from the blue line. While Niklas Kronwall, known for his devastating hits, has had a great offensive season with nine goals and 35 assists. 2011 draft pick, Alexey Marchenko will make his playoff debut in tonights game; the Moscow native has a great slap shot and a big body to wear down Tampa Bay. On the Lightning side, the defensemen are led by Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman who both had good seasons in the scoring department with 39 and 38 points respectively.

Advantage: Detroit

Blue line scoring will be huge in this series and Zidlicky will be an X-factor for the Red Wings. If the veteran can supply goals and take the pressure off the forwards, it could be enough to swing the series in Detroit’s favor.

Goaltenders

One of the most highly debated topics in the NHL heading into the playoffs has been who should start in net for the Red Wings. Babcock ended any debate earlier this week as he named young Petr Mrazek(16-9-2) as the starter for game one over veteran Jimmy Howard. Mrazek ended the season with a 35-save shutout of Carolina and recorded a .918 save percentage along with a 2.38 goals against average in 29 games during the regular season. He will make his playoff debut tonight. Across the ice will be the massive Ben Bishop(40-13-5) who stands at 6-foot-7, the tallest netminder in the NHL. “Big Ben” as he is aptly named, will also being playing in his first playoff game after missing last year’s playoffs due to injury. Bishop had a good season for Tampa Bay with a .916 save percentage and a 2.32 goals against average in 62 games during the regular season.

Advantage: Tampa Bay

While both goaltenders lack experience in the playoffs, Bishop has been the undisputed number one goaltender for the Lightning the past two seasons. Being named the starter in game 1 should give Mrazek an extra boost of confidence but as Babcock as shown throughout his coaching career, he will not hesitate to switch goaltenders mid-series.

Coaching and Intangibles

With Babcock’s contract set to expire at the end of this season, this may be his last shot to win another cup in Detroit. Whether or not this will motivate the Red Wings remains to be seen. The Lightning had a great regular season last year but were swept by Montreal in the first round. The long offseason has been motivation for this Lightning team and they come into the playoffs following another strong finish to the regular season. Steve Yzerman is not the only person on the Lightning to have ties to the state of Michigan, head coach Jon Cooper, who was hired last season, earned a law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich. He also coached at Lansing Catholic Central High School. Cooper is considered to be one of the best up and coming coaches in the league.

Who wins?

The Red Wings have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since the 2008-09 season when they came within one win of back-to-back Stanley Cups. If the Red Wings are to make a deep run this season they will need to play disciplined hockey and cut down on the turnovers in their own zone. Do not sleep on Mrazek in this series, but it will take a remarkable effort from the young netminder to steal this series.

Series Prediction: Tampa Bay in 7