Hockeytown breathed a huge sigh of relief on Saturday afternoon, as the Ottawa Senators did a huge favor to the Detroit Red Wings’ hopes of making a 25th consecutive playoff appearance.
A Wings loss against the New York Rangers left them in a precarious position, as the Boston Bruins needed a single point to bump themselves into third place in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. Detroit was nowhere near the wild card cutoff, and the fortune they needed to squeeze in came from a 6-1 win from Ottawa over Boston, which meant that Detroit’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers was not going to be the collapse that kept them out of the playoffs.
The first hurdle of the playoff season for this year’s Atlantic Division No. 3 seed Red Wings (41-30-11, 93 points) is a rematch of last season’s first round matchup with the Atlantic Division No. 2 seed Tampa Bay Lightning (46-31-5, 97 points). Last season’s series went to seven games, as Detroit ran out to a 3-2 series lead and had a chance to win the series at home in Game 6. But following losses by the scores of 5-2 and 2-0, the Wings were consigned to a first round exit.
This season, the two teams split the season series, as Detroit won 3-1 at home in October and 2-1 at home at the start of November. However, a 3-1 Tampa win in February and a 6-2 win in late March were the two most recent results. This Tampa team is not the same as last year’s version that made the Stanley Cup Final before losing in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. Rather, some Bolts fans are concerned with this matchup due to key injuries.
Star center Steven Stamkos is out for this series with a blood clot in his right arm, and the 40-goal scorer is someone the Red Wings definitely won’t miss seeing bearing down on net. Stamkos scored 43 goals last season and had 36 goals and 28 assists this year before suffering his injury.
The same goes for top defenseman Anton Stralman, who suffered a fractured left fibula in late March. Stralman has been a mainstay in the Lightning defense for the past couple seasons after moving from the Rangers in 2014, and is one of the top defensive defensemen in the league.
Also worrying for Tampa is the health of center Tyler Johnson, who has struggled with injuries this season after an All-Star season in 2014-15. A hit into the boards in the Lightning’s regular season finale left Johnson with an upper-body injury that leaves his status questionable for the start of the series, although he did return to practice on Tuesday.
Either way, this is a potentially vulnerable Lightning team personnel-wise, as the team’s number one defenseman Victor Hedman (47 points, +21 plus/minus, average of 23:01 time on ice), right winger Nikita Kucherov (30 G, 36 A; leads the team in scoring), and veteran right winger Ryan Callahan are all nursing injuries heading into this series.
The Red Wings, meanwhile, are injury-free, and went 7-5 in their last 12 games to end the season. The 5-2 stretch that propelled them into the playoffs featured wins over Montreal, Philadelphia, and Minnesota. It must be said that down the stretch, when the Wings needed wins, they got them, the finale in New York notwithstanding.
Although the focus from the media ahead of this series may surround Pavel Datsyuk and his decision to return to Russia after the season, perhaps the focus should shift to a possible reuniting of the “Eurotwins”, Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Head coach Jeff Blashill has struggled to get the most out of players such as Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader, both players who scored over 20 goals last season but have failed to hit the same heights under the first-year head coach. Therefore, rumblings are that the two veterans of this team will skate on the first line with Abdelkader in Game 1.
The lines after that are interesting to try and analyze as well. Nyquist will play on the second line with Riley Sheahan and Tomas Tatar, and Brad Richards will center a line with Dylan Larkin and Darren Helm. Rookie Anthony Mantha was moved to Grand Rapids after making his debut, but fellow rookie Andreas Athanasiou will see some minutes on the fourth line with Joakim Andersson and center Luke Glendening. The Andersson move is one for potential concern, as Tomas Jurco will be a healthy scratch, at least for Game 1. Blashill tried to justify it after practice Tuesday.
“When we looked back at film of previous playoffs and even last year he showed up in a lot of good clips against Tampa,” Blashill said. “He’s got playoff experience. He knows how to play the game. The other thing is he adds depth to our penalty kill.”
If Andersson shows up defensively in this series, it may be the coaching masterstroke that wins this series for the Wings.
Where can each team win this series?
For Tampa: The goaltending battle is the most important matchup that many believe is in favor of Tampa Bay at the start of the series. Ben Bishop has dragged this team through the injuries to a second-place division finish. Bishop’s 2.06 goals against average is a career low and is the best in the league among qualifying netminders. His save percentage of .926 is also the best in the league among goalies with at least half their team’s starts.
Meanwhile, Detroit has been a bit of a mess late in the season. Petr Mrazek had a strong season until the middle of March, and he’s been awful in his last two starts, failing to last a period against Montreal and being pulled against Pittsburgh in the second period in the last week of March. Jimmy Howard is not the same goalie of a couple seasons ago, but it is the former Maine goaltender who will start Game 1 after being the main goalie down the stretch for the Wings. If Bishop can shut out the Detroit attack, the Lightning may win this series easily.
For Detroit: The Wings need a big series from their top six forwards and Larkin, but Niklas Kronwall and Mike Green need to step their defensive game up in this series. The goaltending has been a little shaky at times this season, but the Lightning are banged up right now with Stamkos at least out for the whole series. The Lightning still have plenty of dangerous forwards in Ondrej Palat (16 G, 24 A) and Alex Killorn (14 G, 26 A), and if Kronwall can shut down their top scoring lines while Green adds a presence to the power play, the Wings could use the good luck with injuries to Tampa to move past the first round of the playoffs.
It’s too early to make a prediction, but if Detroit can steal one of the first two home games in Tampa, it’ll go a long way towards securing a spot in the second round.
Game 1, Wednesday, April 13: Detroit @ Tampa Bay, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Fox Sports Detroit, NBCSN, CBC
Game 2, Friday, April 15: Detroit @ Tampa Bay, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Fox Sports Detroit, CNBC, CBC
Game 3, Sunday, April 17: Tampa Bay @ Detroit, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Fox Sports Detroit, CNBC, CBC
Game 4, Tuesday, April 19: Tampa Bay @ Detroit, 7:00 p.m. EDT, Fox Sports Detroit, NBCSN, CBC
Game 5, Thursday, April 21: Detroit @ Tampa Bay, TBD, Fox Sports Detroit (if necessary)
Game 6, Sunday, April 24: Tampa Bay @ Detroit, TBD (if necessary)
Game 7, Tuesday, April 26: Detroit @ Tampa Bay, TBD, Fox Sports Detroit (if necessary)