Photo Credit: Kim Klement (USA Today)
It has been 176 days since we last saw the Detroit Red Wings play a meaningful hockey game.
It was game five of the first round in Tampa Bay, the same place the Red Wings find themselves tonight. That evening the Red Wings lost 1-0, which ended the series 4-1 in favour of our rival from the Sunshine State.
These two teams are extremely familiar with each other, having met a combined 20 times over the last two seasons. During that stretch, the Lightning have gotten the better of the Red Wings. Detroit is 7-11-2 while averaging 2.00 goals for and 2.55 goals against in those 20 meetings. They have met in the first round in the playoffs in both seasons and the Lightning have bounced us twice in a row.
As disappointing as that has been, the Lightning have been doing it to everyone. Over the last two years they are third in the NHL in goals for (2.95), fifth in wins (96) and are tied for seventh in goals against (2.46). In contrast, Detroit is tied for 14th in goals against (2.62), 15th in wins (84) and tied for 16th in goals for (2.68).
A lot has been made of the Red Wings’ offseason over the last few days, especially after Teemu Pulkkinen and Martin Frk were lost on waivers. Anthony Mantha, the 20th overall pick in 2013, was also sent back to Grand Rapids (AHL) after a strong preseason (3G / 0A in five games), which caused some waves. Ken Holland’s cap and asset management have been called into question after some of his summer signings and the trickle down affect they have had on the Red Wings’ youth.
With all that said, the Red Wings still enter the 2016-17 season with some promise. They are very similar to the team they were last year, a team that underperformed. Let’s take a look at the opening night lineups for these two Atlantic Division teams.
THE RED WINGS
At the end of last year, all of our worst nightmares came true when Pavel Datsyuk left for Russia. Datsyuk has been a key cog in the Red Wings’ lineup since 2001-02. While Datsyuk himself is irreplaceable, Holland did as good of a job as he could after Steven Stamkos re-signed with the Lightning. He signed veteran centre Frans Nielsen, who is known for his outstanding two-way game and playmaking ability. You’d think I was talking about Datsyuk right? Nielsen will slide onto the top line in between captain Henrik Zetterberg and analytics darling Tomas Tatar. Zetterberg (knee) was originally questionable for tonight’s game, but was able to suit up for the preseason finale and is ready for his 14th NHL season. After scoring 29 goals and 56 points in 2014-15, Tatar took a big step back last year (21G / 24A) and is one reason to expect better things from Detroit this year. One thing that sticks out when you look at the Red Wings’ opening night lineup is Dylan Larkin at centre. The sophomore will shift back to his natural position to start the year and head coach Jeff Blashill plans on keeping him there. Face-offs are going to be Larkin’s obstacle, but after watching him throughout his rookie year, there probably isn’t a mountain he can’t climb. Another one of Holland’s veteran singings was Thomas Vanek, who also had a nice preseason and joins Gustav Nyquist and Darren Helm, to cap-off a deep top-9. The real problem that seemingly every Red Wings’ fan had with the 23-man roster was a fourth line of Steve Ott-Luke Glendening-Drew Miller. To let Pulkkinen go to waivers, Mantha to the AHL and Andreas Athanasiou a healthy scratch to play Ott and Miller is questionable at best.
On the blueline, the Red Wings will be without Niklas Kronwall, who is on injured reserve with a knee injury, that could hamper him for the remainder of his career. Their top pair of Dan DeKeyser and Alexey Marchenko are both defensively responsible and will be tasked with going head-to-head with the oppositions best on every night. Brendan Smith and Mike Green make up a dynamic offensive second pair and will play an exciting run-and-gun style, which could lead to chances at both ends. The third pair features everyone’s favourite whipping boy Jonathan Ericsson and Xavier Ouellet, who fills in for Kronwall. They likely won’t see a lot of ice-time, specifically against a dangerous Tampa Bay top-6.
Tampa Bay comes in with virtually the same team that they went to the Eastern Conference Final with. There was some concern, in Tampa Bay (hope in Detroit) that Nikita Kucherov would not sign before the start of the season, but Steve Yzerman did more Steve Yzerman things. The Lightning General Manager signed Kucherov to an excellent three-year deal worth $14.2998 million. Kucherov was back at practice on Wednesday and skated on line 1B with Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn. Line 1A, features the aforementioned Stamkos, who Yzerman somehow got to sign an eight year deal worth $8.5 million per season (Steve is a wizard), Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin. Their top-6 is terrifying and makes you realize how Detroit has only won seven of 20 games against them.
Their bottom-6 has a familiar face in Valtteri Filppula, who is paired up with a pair of young forwards in Vladislav Namestnikov, who has only been getting his feet wet in his first two years and rookie Brayden Point, who tallied 88 points (35G / 53A) in 48 WHL games last year. The Lightning fourth line of Brian Boyle-Cedric Paquette-J.T. Brown is significantly better than the Red Wings fourth line and will also chip in some offence.
On the back-end, Victor Hedman has solidified himself as one of the top defensemen in the NHL and his partner Anton Stralman is playing the best hockey of his NHL career in Tampa Bay. Behind them is the hard shooting Jason Garrison, the humongous Andrej Suster, veteran Braydon Cobrun and the offensively-inclined Nikita Nesterov. It may not be the best blueline in the NHL, but it’s certainly solid and the top-pair should be considered among the league’s best.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
The Red Wings’ forward group and blueline are average, but their goaltending should be near the top of the NHL. Petr Mrazek is expected to start the season opener following a strong first year as the Red Wings’ No.1. Over the first four and a half months, Mrazek was among the best goalies in the league. He had 20 wins (10th in the NHL at the time) with a 1.97 GAA (1st) and .933 SV% (1st), but then he hit a wall. In his final 14 starts, the Czech netminder was 6-6-1 with a 3.53 GAA and .884 SV% and was outplayed badly by Jimmy Howard.
Coming into this season, Mrazek is the clear No.1 again, but his leash likely won’t be long because of Howard’s presence. Last year the 24-year-old had poor regular season numbers against the Lightning, but dazzling postseason numbers. Expect a good year from both Mrazek and Howard and it will start with Mrazek in Tampa Bay tonight.
For the Lightning, it is no surprise that their goaltending is elite as well. Their ginormous starter Ben Bishop won 35 games last season and has won 112 over the last three years, which is tied for first in the NHL with Braden Holtby. During that same span he has posted a 2.20 GAA and .922 SV%, showcasing his high-end ability. Bishop is expected to start tonight and he has tormented the Red Wings in each of the last two postseasons. Andrei Vasilevskiy is a former first round pick and will serve as his backup, but should see a healthy number of starts this season.
As the Red Wings get set to start their final season at Joe Louis Arena, here’s a look at the Red Wings’ official hype video for farewell season at the Joe. It features everything you’d want in a hype video. A great song, a lot of Dylan Larkin and a ton of classic footage like The Brawl vs. Colorado, Darren McCarty’s goal vs. the Flyers and so much Al Sobotka waving octopi.
WHERE TO WATCH
Puck drop is at 7:00 p.m. ET at Amalie Arena. You can watch it on Fox Sports Detroit or listen to it on 97.1 FM 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.