Exactly one year ago, fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning were giddy with anticipation. First, there was a feeling that the team had to exorcise the remaining demons of the previous year’s playoff sweep at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. Most importantly, the Lightning were entering the playoffs 100 percent healthy, unlike the previous season when their No 1. goalie, Ben Bishop, was unable to play due to an elbow injury. To their credit, the team did not use that as an excuse for the sweep.
Oh what a difference a year makes. At the start of this year’s playoffs, the Lightning could easily be mistaken for a casting call of The Walking Dead. As they prepare for their first round series against the Detroit Red Wings, Tampa is without their top goal scorer (Steven Stamkos). With less than a week remaining in the regular season, Stamkos was diagnosed with a blood clot near his collarbone, which required immediate surgery. Initial prognosis was that Stamkos would be sidelined for at least a month, if not longer.
In addition to that major injury, the team is also playing without its No 2 defenseman, Anton Stralman. In a game against the New York Islanders at the end of March, Stralman took an awkward fall and broke his left fibula. The good news, if one could call it that, is that Stralman could be ready to go in the second round of the playoffs should his team get past the Red Wings in Rd. 1.
As if those two major injuries weren’t enough, during the last few games of the season, NIkita Kucherov, Ryan Callahan and Victor Hedman all were scratched from those games due to various injuries. So in addition to Stamkos (leading scorer) and Stralman (2nd best defenseman), they are limping into to the playoffs with their second leading scorer (Kucherov), their associate captain and leading hitter (Callahan) and No. 1 defenseman (Hedman) all battling through injuries. It is understandable that last season’s giddiness has been replaced by an overwhelming concern.
Nevertheless, it is time for the NHL playoffs and the Lightning are making their third consecutive appearance and trying their best to show that last year’s trip to the Stanley Cup Final was no fluke. Sure, it would be easy to give in to the injury list and say it wasn’t meant to be, but the fact is that all 16 NHL playoff teams are battling through injuries. Time to play the hand that you have been dealt.
So here we go. Time for Detroit and Tampa to renew their short-but-already-testy rivalry. Storylines abound in this matchup. Steve Yzerman, the Lightning general manager, was the long-time captain of these Red Wings for what seemed like forever. Last year’s series went to seven games and there were plenty of memorable moments. There was Detroit goalie, Petr Mrazek, standing on his head in Game 1, stopping 44 of the 46 Lightning shots to help the Wings steal home ice. In Game 6, Kucherov took a monster hit from Niklas Kronwall, which cost Kronwall a one-game suspension for the deciding Game 7.
There were three shutouts in the series, one by Mrazek and two by Tampa’s Bishop, both playing in their first playoff series. There was even one overtime game and plenty of goals, hits and saves. It was the kind of series that builds up some good old fashion hatred for the opposing team. Now, it is time for both these clubs to do it all again.
Okay, so Mike Babcock isn’t behind the Detroit bench any longer, but to think that most of the Wings roster doesn’t have some sort of revenge on their minds is the first step in underestimating them. In this respect, the fact that the Lightning are nursing some injuries means that they cannot risk underestimating anyone.
Looking at this matchup, it begins with the goalies. Mrazek, with only 40 NHL games under his belt prior to last season’s series with Tampa, acquitted himself admirably. Now, he is a year older and with the experience of another 60 NHL games. His numbers in the just completed regular season are very good. A save percentage of .921 and a goals-against average of 2.33 in 54 games put him among the leaders in the league. Unfortunately for the Wings, they are going to face the goalie who had the best save percentage in Bishop, who finished at 2.06. By the way, Bishop also had a save percentage of .926, second in the league to only Brian Elliott (.930), but Bishop played in 61 games to Elliott’s 42.
Detroit fans are likely thinking that without Stamkos, the Lightning may be ripe for the picking. I am sure that some Wings pundits are smelling an upset. So, let me throw this at them: Even taking away the 36 goals scored by Stamkos, the Lightning’s goal differential is a minus-10. Coming into this series, Detroit’s goal differential is a minus-13.
The Red Wings do have playoff experience. That happens when your franchise is in the postseason 25 years in a row. The thing about that experience is that while that may have been a factor in the first round series a year ago going the full seven games, it wasn’t enough for Detroit to get over the hump. Now that the Lightning and many of its young players have three consecutive playoff appearances, this Red Wings advantage is somewhat mitigated.
Sure, the loss of Stamkos isn’t anything that is easy to overcome, but keep in mind the Lightning still have Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. The Triplets were a force throughout the playoffs last season. Tampa still has the likes of Alex Killorn, Callahan and Hedman. They are a potent team even without their captain.
The wild card in this series is Jonathan Drouin. The kid is on a mission to right a lot of wrongs. He has been contrite since his recall from Syracuse and has a lot to prove to the league, to his team, to his management and coaching staff, but most of all to himself. He has made amends in his brief time back and he may be playing for his next team, but he will be a deciding factor in this series.
At least in this first round, expect the Lightning to beat Detroit in six games. Once that happens, Stralman may return and the team gets a whole lot better defensively. Get past the first round and who knows what could happen?
Get Stralman back, and with any bit of luck getting a healthy Stamkos back, and look out for the Lightning.