Originally I had stated that I was going to do a preview of each series, but ran out of time quickly, so now I’ve decided to do a quick preview for each game of the playoffs. Not too in depth, but enough to help you guys find out who is in, who is out, who is in net and who has the advantage.
The first game of the playoffs is the Red Wings vs. Lightning. This is a rematch from last year and the 2016 edition will likely be just as exciting as the 2015 version. The Lightning start in a hole though because they will be without their captain and leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos and first-pairing defenseman Anton Stralman. With Stamkos out, Tyler Johnson becomes their first line centre, but he is also questionable for tonight’s game.
Advantage: Red Wings
If Stamoks were playing in this game, my outlook on the forward groups might be different. With Stamkos sidelined, this Lightning team suddenly doesn’t look so great up front. If Johnson plays, that helps, but now he will be facing the toughest matchup instead of exploiting an easier matchup like he did last year while Stamkos faced the Red Wings top-pair of every shift.
Detroit is led by two veterans in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. They may not be the players they used to be, but they’re both tremendous two-way forwards who make life difficult for the other team even when they aren’t scoring.
There is no shortage of young talent in this series. Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat had their coming out parties with Johnson last season, but this year it has been all about the Red Wings Dylan Larkin. The 19-year-old had a tremendous rookie season and should be a Calder finalist. This will be his first taste of NHL playoff hockey and the same can be said for fellow speedster Andreas Athanasiou. The player more easily known as “AA” in Red Wings circles may by even faster than Larkin, but likely won’t have the same impact on this series as the former first round pick. For Tampa Bay, it didn’t seem like we would ever see young Jonathan Drouin in a Lightning uniform again, but here we go. First he was send down, then suspended for not reporting, then rumoured to be traded, not traded, had his suspension lifted and finally recalled and in the top-6 for the playoffs. He had two goals in the final two regular season games and will be looking to fill the void left by the Stamkos injury.
Again, if it weren’t for the injury to Stralman, I would have given the advantage to Tampa Bay. However, without Stralman, Matt Carle suddenly becomes a top-pairing defenseman and that just doesn’t sound right. Victor Hedman is easily the best defenseman in this series but the rest of the Lightning bluline isn’t overly impressive. Braydon Coburn is a calming veteran that insulates a young Nikita Nesterov while Andrej Sustr is a tower that plays alongside an offensively inclined Jason Garrison, who doesn’t shoot nearly as often as he should. It’s not a terrible blueline, but it’s not great either.
For the Red Wings, in-zone defensive coverage has been a mystery for the better part of a month and they will be looking to shore that up starting tonight. Brendan Smith has frequently served as a healthy scratch, leaving them with Danny DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey, Niklas Kronwall, Alexey Marchenko,Mike Green and Jonathan Ericsson. Now, some of you may not know this but Ericsson is terrible. DeKeyser and Quincey will likely serve as their shutdown pair against the Johnson line and they will look for offence out of Kronwall and Green. The former Capital blueliner didn’t have a great year overall, but has picked up 14 points (3G / 11A) in his last 20 games.
Tampa Bay has a clear advantage in goal in this series. It may not have been the case last season, but Ben Bishop, who is expected to start tonight, put fourth a Vezina Finalist quality season this year and will need to carry his play into the playoffs if the Lightning are going to overcome their injuries.
For the Red Wings, goaltending is a big question mark entering the series. Petr Mrazek was outstanding before the All Star break and I mean outstanding. However, after the All Star break he fell off. That left Jimmy Howard to re-claim his job back and he has played well coming into the playoffs. He will be leaned on in Game 1, but Howard doesn’t have the greatest playoff track record.
Red Wings outplay the Lightning, but the game remains close. Detroit played in the most one-goal games in the NHL this season, so that won’t change tonight. Detroit wins 3-2 and takes a 1-0 series lead, much like they did last season.