Do you feel that? The feeling that you can both take on the world while simultaneously eating all of your fingernails because you think they're a good source of protein? That bubbling cauldron that is your stomach, reminding you that eating is necessary but acting so violently that nothing will remain in there for long? Welcome back to the NHL Playoffs.
The Red Wings kick off their first round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight, looking to exact revenge on the Bolts for ending Detroit's season a year ago. Many of the key figures involved in this series are the same, although Tampa comes into this series missing 2 very important players in Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, while the Red Wings have a few new players in Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou ready to get their first taste of postseason action.
In the minds of many neutral observers, this series is a difficult one to predict. The Lightning, on paper, possess a more talented team, having returned most of the players that carried them to the Stanley Cup Final last year. Ben Bishop had a phenomenal season in the Lightning net, and they are a team loaded with offensive firepower even with Stamkos out. The Red Wings had a very up-and-down season, never really getting on a roll but never going totally into the crapper to leave them out of the playoffs. The Wings don't do any one thing particularly well, but are average enough with a strong team, on paper at least, to potentially make a long playoff run.
If the Wings are going to beat the Lightning and advance to the 2nd round for only the second time in the last 5 years, there are a few things that need to happen. We'll break them down for you as only we can.
If the Wings had one glaring weakness for most of this season, it was their power play. The Wings finished 13th in the NHL in PP%, helped immensely by a late season surge that saw them score 12 power play goals over their final 11 games. Had that not occurred, the Wings were almost assuredly looking at a bottom-10 finish, unacceptable for a team that finished 2nd a year ago. Inexplicably, the Lightning were even worse, finishing ahead of only Toronto and Winnipeg in PP%. The loss of Stamkos should weaken them with the man advantage, which might give the Wings a slight edge. However, on the PK, Tampa was considerably better, finishing 7th with an 84.05 PK%. The Wings were again middle-of-the-pack despite the loss of super-killer Drew Miller.
It's likely that most of this series will be played 5-on-5, but the Wings could do themselves a huge favor by taking advantage of power plays when they get them, particularly since they should be able to neutralize what is an already ineffective Tampa power play. If the Wings can outscore Tampa on special teams, that will go a long way towards Detroit beating the Bolts.
You may notice a bit of a "Captain Obvious" theme going on here, as we're not diving deep into the systems or statistics. I'll leave that for people much smarter than I am (and seriously, check out Prashanth's work on systems because you, like me, will learn a ton). However, if there was one area where the Wings were really good for part of the year, it was in goal.
Both Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek started the season very well, with neither conceding the starting job to the other until December. Howard faltered, paving the way for Mrazek to step in and play at a level not seen around here since Dominik Hasek a decade ago. Unfortunately, Mrazek is not superhuman like we all expected, and that allowed Howard to reclaim the starting job with a few outstanding performances and by being a little better than Mrazek over the last month. What did happen is that we saw that Mrazek's crazy numbers masked the problems the Wings have had this year, specifically being able to score on a consistent basis.
Ben Bishop is a Vezina candidate who shut out the Wings in their most important game of the season last year, a 2-0 loss where the Wings threw everything they had at Bishop but he was unbeatable. There's no reason to expect that he won't be as strong this year as he was last year, and if the Wings don't get above-average goaltending to at least come close to matching what Bishop is likely going to do, the Wings could face another early exit.
The Triplets vs Eurotwins
While the Red Wings were able to contain Stamkos last year, they had no answer for the Triplets, particularly Tyler Johnson. The trio of Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov were the biggest reason why the Lightning were able to advance, combining for 7 goals and 14 points in the first round. In Game 4, with the Wings leading late in the third period and looking to go up 3-1 in the series, Johnson and Palat scored in the final 6 minutes of the third to tie the game before Johnson scored in OT to even the series. Johnson had another 2 goals in Game 6 to force Game 7, and it's pretty clear that if the Wings had been able to stop him, they likely would have won. This year there's no Stamkos to worry about, and while Johnson is fighting an injury that may keep him out of part of this series, he should be the primary focus for the Wings defensively.
On the Wings' side, the Eurotwins have been reunited, which in recent years has meant that the team as a whole is having trouble scoring and needs a spark. Pavel Datsyuk was good against the Bolts last year, racking up 3 goals and 2 assists, but Henrik Zetterberg tallied 3 assists total. The Red Wings have had trouble scoring all year, and with other players either regressing or this being their first trip to the playoffs, the Wings will need their two leaders to step up offensively and carry this team to the second round.
How do we feel about Jeff Blashill right now? Certainly the beginning of the year was full of optimism and hope, but his decisions over the last month felt desperate, like he was trying to accomplish one small goal at the expense of looking at the big picture. We've talked a lot around here about things he's doing that make very little sense, but he has the ability to make that all go away if he would just listen to us and make better lineup choices. It will be interesting to see how he deploys his players, particularly his forwards, against a weakened Tampa lineup when it was one guy (Tyler Johnson) who really hurt them last year. How will Blashill fare in his first ever NHL playoff series against his good friend, Jon Cooper? Will he unleash Athanasiou and allow him to use his speed to exploit a slower Tampa defense corps? Will he shelter Larkin and/or the Gustav Nyquist/Riley Sheahan/Tomas Tatar line to get favorable matchups? Will he keep the Eurotwins together? Will he make a goaltending change if Howard doesn't look great early? Jon Cooper has been through all this before and knows what to expect, and without Stamkos he's going to have to balance his lineup and get scoring from somewhere. Many have pointed out that Stamkos failed to tally a single goal in last year's series, but the Wings still had to account for him.
At the end of the day, these two teams look to be more evenly matched thanks to injuries on the Tampa side. The Red Wings struggled all season to remain consistent, and didn't clinch a playoff spot until the 82nd game. However, on paper, this team should be just as good as last year's squad that nearly advanced. With this potentially being Pavel Datsyuk's last hurrah (NO SHUT UP YOU'RE CRYING), do the Wings become the team that we all thought they were, or do they remain the team that we hoped they weren't?
I predict it's closer to the former. Wings in 7. Let's go.