Game 1 Lessons: Red Wings vs Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning jumped out to a 1-0 series lead in their first round match up with the Detroit Red Wings thanks to a 3-2 victory last night. Unlike last year, there was no goaltender to steal the game for Detroit, although the overall play of the Wings was much better compared to Game 1 a year ago. However, the Wings find themselves trailing after the first game of a series for the first time since the second round of the 2013 playoffs, a series they would go on to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks.
We talked yesterday about the keys to the Red Wings winning this series, and several of them were on display last night. The Wings lost the goaltending battle, with Jimmy Howard being out-dueled by Ben Bishop, and the Wings were unable to get any offense from their power play while keeping the Lightning off the score sheet when they had the man advantage. However, we learned a few other things from last night, and if the Wings want to advance, they better heed these lessons immediately.
Stop Tyler Johnson
You would think the Red Wings would know this already, having watched Tyler Johnson almost single-handedly eliminate them a year ago. Last night, Johnson was up to his old tricks, notching 2 primary assists on the first and third Tampa goals. NBCSN made a point to mention that Jon Cooper wasn't as worried about line matching as Jeff Blashill, but it's interesting to note that the forward group the Johnson line played against the most was the Brad Richards/Dylan Larkin/Darren Helm line. Johnson finished with a 59.1 CF% at even strength, and he and Nikita Kucherov were easily the most dangerous Tampa forwards in the game. It will be interesting to see how the Wings match him up going forward, especially once the series shifts to Detroit for Games 3 and 4 and the Wings get last change.
Victor Hedman is a Stud
When discussing the best defensemen in the NHL, Erik Karlsson is named first (as he should be), and then you'll get names like P.K. Subban, Drew Doughty, Kris Letang and others. Victor Hedman almost seems to be forgotten by the majority of hockey fans, but last night he showed that he may be one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL. Cooper elected to have Hedman play most of his 29 (!!!) minutes against Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and he easily won the CF battle against them. Hedman made a few defensive plays that reminded me of Lidstrom, including breaking up an odd-man rush involving Andreas Athanasiou and Mike Green where he looked out of position but blocked 2 pass attempts. What's interesting is that the third line of Riley Sheahan, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar fared pretty well against Hedman, and again, I wonder if Blashill attempts to get the Eurotwins away from Hedman or if he'll try to get offense from other sources, because it's going to be difficult to do against Tampa's top pair.
Jimmy Howard Wasn't the Problem
There was a discussion leading up to the game and after the game about whether Jimmy Howard gives the Red Wings the best opportunity to win this series. Many are on the fence about that, possibly due to Howard's past history and possibly due to the idea that Petr Mrazek is more likely to steal a game or the series. To the former, Howard's play over his career matches the team he plays for currently, in that both are very inconsistent. To the latter, I'll say now what I said last night: if the Wings require their goaltender to stand on his head and steal a game and/or a series, they are in big trouble. Howard played a perfectly fine game last night. He didn't stand on his head, nor did he need to. I'd argue 2 of the 3 Tampa goals were virtually unstoppable, but I'd like to see a little better rebound control on the 2nd Kucherov goal. Howard deserves the start in Game 2, and if he plays like he did, the Wings will have an opportunity to win. Having said all of that, if he looks bad, I'm not afraid to say the Wings need to go to Mrazek immediately.
Balance the Ice Time
It's been an issue for the last several months, but once again we saw Jeff Blashill rely heavily on his veteran players and limit the ice time for his younger players. The top line all played at least 18 minutes last night, while Athanasiou, and Larkin both saw their ice time get limited to under 9 and 12 minutes, respectively. For AA, this is nothing new, and once again we saw him be very productive time in what little time he saw. For Larkin, he may have had his time cut back after making a mistake on the first Lightning goal, and he also lost a couple of minutes due to a penalty he took in the second period. The Tampa forwards had their ice time more evenly distributed, and one can't help but wonder if that allowed them to remain fresh in the third period when they started to take the play to the Wings more. We talked about this before the series began, but now is the time to see what you can get from the young players, particularly in the third period of games where a goal is needed. AA should be around the 10 minute mark, and Larkin should be around 14. Unleash the kids, Jeff.
Let's Get Physical
As what happens with a second consecutive year of two teams playing each other in the playoffs, the game got a little contentious, especially in the second period. These two teams appear to be developing a healthy dislike for each other, and both have players that are not afraid to get physical in an attempt to get under the skin of their opponent. The Wings, who are not a particularly big team, will need to combat the physical play by not allowing the post-whistle scrums to get too out of hand, and by showing great discipline and staying out of the penalty box. Justin Abdelkader was both criticized and lauded for his effort last night, and while seeing players up their intensity and getting more involved is good to see, it needs to be done smartly to avoid giving the Lightning any power play opportunities or momentum. I'm not advocating a "turn the other cheek" mentality, but not allowing certain Tampa players to get in their heads should be what the Wings focus on after whistles.
Respect and Maintain the Process
The Wings have talked a lot this year about the "process" and doing the things they want to do in order to achieve the results they desire. Last night, the Wings played a pretty good game over the first 45 minutes. The Hedman disallowed goal should have been a momentum shift for the Wings, but instead it was the Lightning who took over the game after that, scoring less than 2 minutes later and hemming the Wings in their own zone for large periods of time. While that's what fans will remember, it's important to note that through the 2 periods, the Wings were outshooting the Lightning 26-20 and out-attempting them 35-33 (at even strength). That's a far cry from last year when the Wings got less than 20 shots on net in Game 1 and required Mrazek to be amazing to eke out a victory.
The game they played last night wasn't perfect. They will need to generate more traffic immediately in front of Bishop to get second and third chances, and they will need to tighten up the defensive coverage in their own zone to minimize the breakdowns we saw last night that led to all 3 Tampa goals. But Tampa had 1 line that pretty much did what they want, while the Wings didn't generate quite enough offense to match them. If the Wings can clean up a few things and stick with the process that we saw in Game 1, going home with this series tied becomes significantly more likely.