SERIES STARTS: Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, in Tampa Bay.
HOW THEY WIN:
LIGHTNING: When the Lightning are good, they’re outstanding. Since the calendar turned to 2016, they’ve vaulted back into the Eastern contender discussion with winning streaks of seven and nine games.
The Lightning were on pace to score almost half a goal per game less than they did in 2015-16, but their ability to limit high-quality chances is among the best in the East. Much of that is due to the defensive tandem of Victor Hedman. Though he’s lost partner Anton Stralman to injury, we all saw what Hedman was capable of doing during Tampa Bay’s run to the final in 2015. The Bolts lack a dominant offensive producer but get ample production up and down the lineup. Shut down one line and another picks up the slack. Their depth is crucial now that Steven Stamkos is out one to three months with a blood clot.
RED WINGS: The Red Wings are at their best when they duplicate the template that made them so successful all those years under Mike Babcock. When they manage the puck well and play their puck-pursuit style, the Red Wings are a group to be feared. And sometimes they simply need a reminder of how good they are. They got exactly that in a late March game in which they fell behind 3-1 to Florida and then scored four straight goals with two of them coming off the stick of Pavel Datsyuk. Speaking of Datsyuk, he and Henrik Zetterberg remain two of the game’s elite two-way forwards when they’re healthy and clicking on all cylinders. If they can show the way as they’ve done so many times in the past, the Red Wings will be a threat.
In Dylan Larkin, they have a player they’ve managed to diabolically clone, with the rookie likely leading the Red Wings in goal scoring.
HOW THEY LOSE:
LIGHTNING: When the Lightning are bad, they’re horrific. As of late March, they were third in the league in time spent on the power play, but that didn’t account for much because they had the worst success rate of all the teams in the playoffs. Not only does that mean the Lightning don’t take advantage of their opportunities, but teams are also not as worried about taking penalties against them, especially if it negates a scoring chance. Tampa Bay had lost five games by 1-0 and 2-0 scores. The focus on defense sometimes comes at the expense of generating chances and goals.
Last season, the Lightning reached the final riding the amazing ‘Triplet Line’ at both ends of the ice. Nikita Kucherov has been outstanding again, but Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson have regressed.
RED WINGS: Under first-year coach Jeff Blashill, the Red Wings have been wildly inconsistent and sometimes very un-Red Wing-like in their approach. There are times when they look as though they haven’t missed a beat and others when they look as though they’ve forgotten much of what made them successful. Although they’re still one of the league’s top 10 possession teams, the number of brain cramps in all zones has been astounding. They were also struggling so much to score that they did another un-Red Wing-like thing when they moved youngster Anthony Mantha into the lineup late in the season. If Datsyuk or Zetterberg goes down, the Red Wings are sunk.
LIGHTNING: The Lightning have just one player, VALTTERI FILPPULA, with a Cup ring, but they gained plenty of experience with their run last year. Coach Jon Cooper recalls that when his team faced elimination in the first round, the attitude among the players was, “Don’t worry, Coach. We’ve got this.” There has been no shortage of drama with the Lightning this season, and Stamkos may have already played his final game with them. You also have to wonder, despite the good job they’ve done this season, whether he and Cooper are truly on the same page.
RED WINGS: From the management team on down, there is an enormous amount of pride in the organization. Although the Red Wings are hardly the feared playoff foe they once were, there’s no way players such as Datsyuk, Zetterberg and NIKLAS KRONWALL will allow this team to go quietly into the night. Zetterberg said he was not prepared to watch the Wings’ streak of 24 years in the playoffs end on his watch. It will be up to him and Datsyuk to lead the way, not simply to make playoffs but also so the young players on the way will learn the Red Wing way.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn
With Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson out, the big matchup for the series might be the tale of two Russians. Nikita Kucherov exploded onto the scene last season and has shown he’s a dynamic offensive threat for the Lightning, and with the two Tampa centers out, he’ll be the focal point of the offence. He’ll likely be matched up against his country-mate Pavel Datsyuk. The two haven’t played much against each other, but the edge goes to Kucherov in the brief time they shared. This season – which could be his last – has seen Datsyuk wilt a bit on the offensive side, but his two-way play is as strong as ever as evidenced by his shot rates. That’ll make things very tough for Kucherov to generate chances and could be what keeps this series close.
THN’s pick: RED WINGS.