As most people have heard by now, the Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs and extended their playoff appearance streak to 24 consecutive seasons. They are the third seed in the Atlantic division of the Eastern Conference, and they will play the second-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning.
Before they made the playoffs, there were a lot of questions to be answered, and the major question was whether they’d keep the streak alive or not. The Ottawa Senators got unbelievably hot at the end of the season and beat out a few teams for a wild card spot, putting the weight of the world on the Red Wings. Lucky for the Wings, they were able earn their playoff spot, and now they can worry about something more important — the Stanley Cup.
23-year-old Petr Mrazek will start game one in the net for the Red Wings when they travel to Tampa Bay on Thursday. Mrazek was extremely hot down the stretch, as he made 35 saves in his third shutout during the season finale against Carolina. Jimmy Howard will likely start game two, but that, of course, all has to do with how Mrazek performs under the pressure of playoff hockey.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had a franchise year this year. The Bolts finished the season with 108 points, good enough to be the third best team in the Eastern Conference. Their 32-8-1 record at home is an NHL best, and will be tough for the Wings to overcome.
Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop also had a career year and was a big reason for their success. This was his first 40-win season in the NHL, and his 6-foot-7 frame gives him a huge advantage to see pucks from all angles.
The Wings do have the team to match up against Tampa Bay, but it’s just a matter of execution. Players like Darren Helm, Drew Miller, and Luke Glendening will have to be at their best if they want to match the veteran players from Tampa, such as Brian Boyle and Brendan Morrow.
The big names from each team will also need to have stand-out performances to help their respective teams reach the next round of the playoffs. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos had 72 points this season, which was tied for the team lead with Tyler Johnson. On the contrary, the Wings will look to their captain, Henrik Zetterberg, to be the leader they’ve seen in past playoff performances; Zetterberg led the team with 66 points, and assistant captain Pavel Datsyuk was right behind him with 65.
One of the themes in this series will be “young-gun performances.” The Red Wings possess big-time talent and scoring with forwards Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, and they can score from anywhere on the ice. Countering them will be what’s known as “The Triplet Line” in Tampa, which consists of Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov. Between the three, Kucherov is tied for the league lead in plus-minus, while Johnson and Palat possess the third and fourth place spots respectively. It’s been tough for the best defensive tandems in the NHL to contain this line, and it will be one of the Wings toughest tasks.
The Red Wings still have a few question marks in terms of players. Forward Justin Abdelkader is questionable with an upper-body injury; Erik Cole will most likely miss significant time, also with an upper-body injury; and Johan Franzen is still suffering concussion-like symptoms, so he is also still a question mark.
In the season series, Tampa Bay took three of four games against the Wings. In the games that Tampa won, they were playing to their system — fast skating, crisp passing, moving the puck, and the defense joined the rush down the ice. In the games they lost, the Wings outplayed the Bolts. Tampa was flat, and the Wings looked like they took a page out of their book with their fast skaters and precise shooting.
This series will come down to who plays into their system most consistently. The Wings will have to use their team chemistry and veteran instincts to move the puck to players like Nyquist and Tatar, who can give you goals with the right opportunity. Tampa Bay will need to play consistent, fast-paced hockey like they have most of the season. If they do that, they will find their sure-fire scorers like Stamkos and the triplet line.
I’m predicting that the Lightning will win this series in six games. Tampa Bay has a lot of motivation from last season because they were swept by Montreal in four games, and they have a chip on their shoulder. However, the Wings have been here before time and time again, and they know what it takes to get things done in the playoffs.