Five of The Nation Network teams have fallen, but one remains. When it looked like all the Canadian teams were going to miss the playoffs, the Nation sprung into action to whip up a team site for a team that they knew would be in the playoffs. The Red Wings gave them a scare but ultimately extended their playoff streak to 25 consecutive seasons and the Nation’s eyes are all on their new prized possession.
OK, that was all a lie, but we are the only Nation team site not writing season reviews, draft prep or any of that uninteresting April content. We are about to embark on what has become an April tradition since 1991, in search of our fifth Stanley Cup in 19 years.
In Round 1 we meet a familiar foe for many reasons. We played the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round last year and we all know that their GM is Steve Yzerman. Last year’s series was a doozy and we nearly upset a Lightning team that ended up going to the Stanley Cup Finals. On paper, this is not the same team that we faced last season. They will be without at least two key members to start the series—their captain and leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos and steady, top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman. Despite those to glaring absences, this is not a team to be overlooked.
Tampa Bay was not as explosive as they were last season, but still ranked 12th in the NHL with 2.73 goals per game. They were also fifth in goals against (2.41 GA/PG), seventh on the penalty kill (84.0%) and tied for 26th in power-play percentage (15.8%). How does that stack up against the Red Wings? Pretty favourably. Detroit was 23rd in scoring (2.55 G/PG), 17th in goals against (2.67), 13th with the man advantage (18.8%) and 14th on the kill (81.5%).
These two squads split the season series and it should be another exciting series this time around. Both teams possess a tonne of speed and skill as well as punishing body checkers to keep everybody honest. The playoffs are long a gruelling and Detroit will need to take it one game at a time, so let’s break this one down!
THE RED WINGS
The scratches have not changed from Game 82 of the regular season but the lines have. We saw Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg together for a few shifts during last Saturday’s season finale, but tonight they will start the playoffs on a line with Justin Abdelkader. Putting those two together moves Brad Richards back to centre between the two speedsters, Dylan Larkin and Darren Helm. Richards was drafted by the Lightning and won a Stanley Cup with the Lightning, so this will be a big series for him. He has had a lot of success in his postseason career, even with his advancing age. During the Blackhawks Stanley Cup run last season, the 35-year-old had 14 points (3G / 11A) in 23 games. The year prior when the Rangers run fell short he had 12 points (5G / 7A) in 25 contests. Maybe the most important stat for Richards is of his 36 career playoff goals, nine of them are game winners. He has proven to be clutch for the Red Wings this season and could be a huge factor in the postseason.
On the blueline, everything looks the same. Brendan Smith is still questionably scratched and Mike Green still leads the way offensively. He didn’t produce points like many expected him to, but he did heat up down the stretch. The 30-year-old picked up 14 points (3G / 11A) in his final 20 games. Stretch that out over 82 games and you’re looking at 57 points. Not bad. Of course that isn’t a great measuring stick, but it has been nice to see Green produce more and he could be an X-factor for the Red Wings in this series. The other X-factor, whether we like it or not is Jonathan Ericsson. When he plays a safe, controlled game, he is fine, but when he is turning the puck over constantly and taking bad penalties, the Red Wings get in big trouble. Niklas Kronwall had a tough end to the year and is probably only playing on one-leg, but his physicality will make a difference in the playoffs, much like it did versus theLightning last year—as long as he doesn’t get suspended for Game 7.
In addition to Stamkos and Stralman, the Lightning have another question mark up front. Tyler Johnson missed Monday’s practice only to return to the ice on Tuesday. He has officially been listed as a game-time decision with an upper-body injury. It looks like Johnson will play and is expected to serve as their No. 1 centre with Stamkos sidelined. Nikita Kucherov is also banged up, but he said he will play Wednesday. He led the Lightning with 66 points (30G / 36A) and had a tremendous playoff run last season. The Red Wings were able to keep him in check in 2014-15 and will need to do so again this year. Jonathan Drouin is the most intriguing player in the Lightning’s lineup. There are all sorts of drama with him this season after he was suspended for failing to report to Syracuse (AHL). He eventually reported after Yzerman decided not to trade him at the deadline and now he finds himself replacing Stamkos to start the playoffs. He had 13 points (11G / 2A) in 17 games with the Crunch and has scored in both NHL games since being called up.
Without Stralman the Lightning will play veteran Matt Carle next to Victor Hedman. This blueline isn’t overly dominating, but it has a great mix of veteran leadership and youthful talent. Hedman and Carle will be leaned on heavily against the Datsyuk-Zetterberg line while they look for offence from Jason Garrison and Nikita Nesterov. Nesterov only had nine points on the season, but picked up three points (1G / 2A) and had a really good series adjacent Detroit last year.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
Jimmy Howard is expected to get the nod in goal for the Red Wings. He took over while Petr Mrazek was struggling and is the main reason the Red Wings were able to clinch a playoff berth. Howard was 4-3-0 with a 2.34 GAA, .912 SV% and one shutout in his final seven appearances. He faced the Lightning on three occasions this season, winning two of the three with a 2.14 GAA and .925 SV%. We’ve seen Howard perform well in the postseason before, but there have also been some struggles. He is capable of stealing a series when he is on top of his game, but his overall playoff numbers are fantastic—21-24 with a 2.53 GAA, .919 SV% and three shutouts.
For the Lightning it will be Ben Bishop. The 29-year-old will be a Vezina Trophy finalist after going 35-21-4 with a 2.06 GAA and .926 SV% on the year. Four of those starts came against the Red Wings, where he was 2-2-0 with a 1.77 GAA and .931 SV%. He was also spectacular vs. Detroit in the 2015 playoffs. The 6-foot-7 netminder was 4-3 with a 1.87 GAA and .922 SV% and one shutout.
I know I just threw a bunch of numbers at you, but what you can take away from them is that the Lightning have the edge in goal. Mrazek was able to nearly go save-for-save with Bishop last year and Howard will need to do the same in 2016.
NHL 16 SIMULATION
For each game of the postseason I’m going to conduct an NHL 16 simulation of that game. Use up-to-date line combinations, power-plays, penalty kills and goalies. Who knows how accurate it will be (probably not at all), but it will be interesting to monitor.
Detroit (3) – (2) Tampa Bay
The Red Wings got off to a hot start with Brad Richards scoring just 1:46 into Game 1. However, Nikita Kucherov tied it late in the period to send it to the break tied 1-1.
After a lengthy intermission due to a Tim Hortons coffee run, Andreas Athanasiou (who played 8:30 TOI by the way) out the Red Wings in front. Later in the frame, Tomas Tatar snapped a beauty home to give Detroit a 3-1 lead.
In typical Detroit fashion, they led a close game late, only to give up a goal with the opposing goalie pulled to make Red Wings fans freak out. However, Jimmy Howard was able to close the door in the final seconds to preserve the win. Howard stopped 23 of 25 shots and the Red Wings’ penalty kill finished at 100 percent, but failed to score on their only power-play.
⭐️ Nikita Kucherov (TBL) – 1G / 0A
⭐️⭐️ Jimmy Howard (DET) – 2 GA / 23 saves / .920 SV%
⭐️⭐️⭐️ Andreas Athanasiou (DET) – 1G / 0A
WHERE TO WATCH
Puck drop is at 7:00 p.m ET at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay. You can watch it on NBCSN, CBC or Fox Sports Detroit and if you aren’t near a television, you can catch it on the Radio with WXYT-FM 97.1 The Ticket.
Also, make sure to follow us on Twitter; we’ll have live tweets, GIFS, and all the fun stuff that a topical social media platform has.