Q & A with Lightning writer W.B. Philp on Detroit/Tampa Bay series

When the matchup finally became official I decided to reach out to Editor of Lightning Shout, W.B. Philp. He has been covering the team for quite a while and has a wealth of knowledge on the team, which made for an easy choice went it came to this Q&A. He gave us the 411 we needed, in anticipation of this sure to be fun series.

Question: How concerned are Lightning faithful that Stamkos is out for an extended period of time?

Philp: Many Lightning fans threw in the towel when Steven Stamkos had surgery and was deemed out one to three months. Not so much because he was the captain and leading goal scorer, but because his absence was combined with the loss of top pair defenseman Anton Stralman, who broke his leg earlier. The team had dealt with Stamkos missing a large portion of the season in 2014 when he broke his leg, missing the last 45 games of the year. The Bolts fared well enough to make the playoffs and witness the return of Stamkos. But the loss of both Stamkos (Leading scorer) and Stralman (Power play QB) (45 goals, 98 points and over 41 minutes per game combined) have Bolts Nation very nervous and unsure about their team. Most are far more concerned that free agent to be, Steven Stamkos, may have played his last game in a Lightning sweater.

Question: Is Stralman’s injury being downplayed too much? He seems like a big cog in this well oiled machine.

Philp: Very much so. Stralman’s absence has forced the Lightning to ask defensemen Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn to log additional minutes. Hedman has been paired with Andrej Sustr who has allowed teams to generate many uncharacteristic quality scoring chances, only to be denied by Vezina worthy goaltender Ben Bishop. It’s not just the absence of Stralman’s 22 minutes per game, but it’s the loss of the important minutes he logged that the Bolts direly miss. He plays the power play, the penalty kill and plays against the best lines every night. Stralman led the Bolts defensemen in goals when he got hurt and his calm demeanor on the ice is very much missed.

Question: What are your feelings on this series? Do you think this matchup plays well for the Lightning?

Philp: The Lightning will have an edge given that they’ll host the first two games and if necessary, the final two games. The home team won each of the four games these two teams played against each other this season. Although the Bolts offense will be slowed a bit by the absence of Steven Stamkos (seven goals and ten points in just 14 career games vs. Detroit), goalie Ben Bishop gives Tampa Bay the edge in the series. Big Ben boasts the best goals against average in the NHL (2.06), the second best save percentage (.926), 35 wins and a league runner-up six shutouts, while the Red Wings situation in the net has been a question mark with Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek both struggling at times. The Lightning aren’t at full strength and this is a big opportunity for the Wings if they can expose Tampa Bay’s lack of forward depth. Should Motown get a hot goalie in their net, the series could go their way.

Question: What is the Lightning’s biggest weakness?
Philp: Plain and simple…the power play. The Bolts power play percentage is an anemic 15.8 (28th in the NHL) and that is with injured sniper Steven Stamkos scoring 32% of Tampa Bay’s goals with the man advantage. That stinky number also includes the steadying play of injured power play quarterback Anton Stralman who chipped in with 12 power play points. This coupled with facing off against the Red Wings 14th best penalty kill unit spells doom for Tampa Bay’s chances with the extra man.

Question: Who is the X-factor for the Lightning?

Philp: The X-Factor for the Bolts is not one player, but three:  Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat…”The Triplets.” If Cooper keeps this line together and they play like they did last season, the Red Wings are in trouble. The loss of Steven Stamkos will be lessened and the Bolts will go deep into the playoffs and may even hoist the Cup. Last seasons playoff run was special for “The Triplets”. They amassed 31 goals, 30 assists, 61 points, a +19 rating, 9 power play goals and 7 game winning goals. Look out for Johnson if he gets healthy and they get it going.

Question: Similarly, how big of an addition is Jonathan Drouin to the lineup?
Philp: Quite frankly, if Stamkos doesn’t get hurt, Drouin is back in Syracuse shopping for alarm clocks. The Lightning were desperate as they started to stumble down the stretch. He will be a difference-maker, but only if coach Jon Cooper puts aside his childish feelings towards him. Cooper has become “Line-Blind” when it comes to Drouin. He views the former third overall draft pick as a punk kid, spoiled and selfish who should “earn” his ice time by playing alongside the plumbers on the third and fourth lines. The kid is a phenom and MUST play in the top six and on the top power play unit. If Cooper can do this, Drouin will be a factor in the series.

Question: Ben Bishop has put up Vezina-like numbers. Do they continue in the playoffs?
Philp: Yes, barring injury. Ben Bishop owns the Red Wings. The 6’7″ Denver native has nine wins and a .935 save percentage in 14 career games vs. Detroit. The certain to be Vezina finalist had a .922 save percentage against the Red Wings in the first round last season, including a shutout in Game 7. Bishop should be the difference-maker in the series.

Question: What is your prediction for the series?
Philp: The Lightning are a Stanley Cup-caliber team and the Red Wings are an evolving team in transition. The Bolts get off to a quick start winning both Games 1 and 2 at home and finish off the Wings in six games. Watch out for the Wings though as the emotional want to send Pavel Datsyuk out hoisting the Cup could go a long way if they can get the goaltending.