Kukla's Korner

The Malik Report

Red Wings-Lightning series preview digest

I can only blame this mess on having one optic nerve that's larger than the other (which apparently OK; it just took a while to figure out why my eyeglass prescription suddenly changed), and the first real grocery shopping run that the mom and I were able to do in two months (for reasons beyond our control).

Long story short, Tuesday was "Playoff Preview Day" (and evening, and night), and the local and national media provided so many Red Wings-Lightning previews that our blog software wasn't able to accommodate both the game set-up and a digest of all of the Wings-Bolts previews out there.

What follows is a survey thereof, and I apologize that it's not all in one neat digest, but it still took me two-and-a-half hours to put this together and another hour to put the game summary together, so I hope you enjoy what follows. Some notebooks are sprinkled in as necessary.

A. Among the Tampa Bay LIghtning's series previews, mentioned in "short take" form:

1. The Tampa Bay Times offers:

A discussion of Ben Bishop's importance to the team from Joe Smith;

An article in which Tom Jones wonders how long the Bolts can go based upon previous playoff experience;

According to Smith, Steven Stamkos still hopes to return to the Lightning lineup at some point during the playoffs;

Greg Auman broke down the Wings-Bolts series...

Intangibles: Tampa Bay won last year and has home-ice advantage, still important as the home team won all four regular-season meetings. But with the injuries to Stamkos and Stralman, there's uncertainty for the Lightning, and the Red Wings have the motivation of facing the team that eliminated them a year ago. This is a close one. EDGE: Red Wings.

And Matt Baker listed "5 Things to Know About the Red Wings":

4. Detroit's history remains rich: The Red Wings extended their playoff streak to a remarkable 25 seasons — the longest active run in the four major North American pro sports leagues and tied for the third longest in NHL history. The last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs, neither the Lightning nor current points leader Nikita Kucherov were born. That history extends to traditions. Detroit fans are still known for throwing octopi onto the ice in a decades-old ritual where the eight tentacles stood for the number of victories necessary to win the Cup. An octopus made its way onto the ice at Amalie Arena during last year's series.

2. From the Tampa Tribune:

Erik Erlendsson spoke with Brad Richards regarding his reunion with his first NHL team:

Former Lightning C Brad Richards, who signed with Detroit in the off-season, will face Tampa Bay in the postseason for the second consecutive season. Last year, Richards played for Chicago, which beat Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s fun and seems to be happening more often,’’ he said. “Any time you can play in the playoffs in a place you grew up, I love it. I relish it. I love the city, so it’s good to be back.’’

Erlendsson also discussed the Lightning's defense-first mentality

Martin Fennelly penned a "Spirit of the Thing" column about playoff experience:

Part of me says it won’t mean a thing once the series begins. After all, Ben Bishop had zero NHL playoff experience before last season, and he helped take his team to the Final. Tyler Johnson didn’t have much experience, either, and he was a sensation until he was injured. I still remember people talking about how the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist’s vast Game 7 success would spell doom for the Lightning.

Still ...

“The experience, you can’t put a price tag on that,” Cooper said. “... We don’t know if it’s going to help us, but it’s definitely not going to hurt, and it’s something we can reach back on. Experience is not going to help the fact that we don’t have Stamkos, we don’t have Stralman. That’s just fact, and that’s something as a team we have to collectively deal without, but there’s no question experience is going to help us.”

No Stamkos. No Stralman. And for those hoping for Jonathan Drouin as the miracle baby, don’t lose your minds or anything. Remember: The guy was in the AHL for a reason.

Still ...

Joey Johnston penned a column about Ryan Callahan's biggest fan, who is 100;

The Tribune offered a "closer look" at the Red WIngs...

History Lesson

Detroit is an “Original Six” franchise, meaning it was among the six teams that made up the NHL for the 25 seasons before the 1967 expansion to 12 teams. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 1936, sparking the longest run of success by a U.S.-based franchise in NHL history. Their 11 Stanley Cup titles are the most of any team based in the United States and third overall in league history behind Montreal (24) and Toronto (13). The Red Wings last won the Cup in 2008, but their appearance in the playoffs this year is their 25th straight.

The Tribune reviewed the Wings-Bolts season series;

And Erlendsson and Olivia Stacey preview the first round in a "Center Ice Podcast."

 

 

B. Among the local series previews, on a source-by-source basis:

1. The Detroit Free Press offers:

A Drew Sharp column about Jimmy Howard's resurgent play that's really about Ken Holland:

“We live in the moment in this business,” Blashill said. “It doesn’t matter what might have happened previously. Or what might occur down the road. It’s about appreciating what’s directly ahead of you. And that’s why you appreciate those who have been through the battles before. We’ve got guys who know what it takes when you get you get to this stage.”

But the problem for the Wings is that Howard isn’t merely the goalie. He has become the symbol. Indicative of Holland’s increasingly questionable contractual decisions over the last five years. Perceived as elite. Paid as elite. Howard can either validate Holland’s judgment with a valiant effort against Tampa Bay or he can ratchet up the currently parboiling external heat on Holland.

It doesn’t help that it’s the Lightning. What’s the name of the guy who built that team?

If Tampa Bay beats the Wings two straight years in the first round of the playoffs, it will be seen as Steve Yzerman beating his old team two straight years. It will only further steer public sentiment that owner Mike Ilitch needs to bring the Captain back home and take over a franchise that has grown stagnant.

And should the Lightning beat the Wings without star Steven Stamkos (blood clot surgery) and top pairing defenseman Anton Stralman (fractured leg) and an ailing Tyler Johnson, it would only strengthen the realization that Yzerman has currently developed a much stronger organization than Holland.

Yeah … that’s a fair amount of pressure on Howard.

But he shrugs it off.

“I’m just going to out there and do my own thing,” he said. “I’m not going to worry about anything else. I’m not going to worry about what others are saying. I’m just going to go out there and play my game.”

The Free Press's George Sipple spoke with Howard a little more informally:

Although Wings coach Jeff Blashill didn’t name a Game 1 starter for Wednesday, it was Howard who spoke to the media after practice on Monday at Joe Louis Arena.

“Same as everyone, zeroes across the board,” Howard said when asked about being the goaltender for the start of the playoffs.

Howard was 14-14-3 with a 2.80 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage in 37 games this season.

Mrazek was 27-16-3 with a 2.33 GAA and a .921 save percentage in 54 games. The Wings lost six of the last seven games Mrazek played in.

“Everything means so much and everything’s on the line,” Howard said of the playoffs. “I really enjoy that, so it’ll be fun.”

Sipple also noted the Wings' wariness regarding Tyler Johnson:

Tyler Johnson scored six goals — two in three games — and had an assist in Tampa Bay’s four wins in the first round against Detroit last year. In the Red Wings’ three wins in the series, they didn’t let Johnson get a point.

“I think the biggest thing is try to take away as much space as possible,” Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwallsaid. “I thought we did a pretty good job overall, but there were times in games when we gave him too much room.”

The Free Press's Helene St. James noted the friendship between Blashill and Cooper:

"No mixed emotions," Detroit's Blashill said with a smile today. "I know for certain I want the bragging rights this summer.

"You know, it will be fun. I've faced friends at different times in my career, whether it be in pro hockey or college hockey or junior hockey. Coop and I have been in a couple different series where we've battled. It's enjoyable to be against somebody who is a good friend."

Cooper pointed to this series as being a "rubber match" because the two were 1-1 against each other while coaching juniors.

"I'm sure we won't talk as much," Cooper said. "I'm really happy for him, that he made the playoffs and is having success. I just wish we weren't playing each other till the final. And I know it's unrealistic, but playing in the first round kind of sucks, because one of us isn't going to advance. But I guess, on the bright side, one of us is going to the second round.

"We're competitors, there's no question. But we have a friendship, and that will never divide that. Unless he reaches around and squirts a water bottle at me."

St. James also suggests that the Red Wings need to find consistent form to advance:

Losing Stamkos leaves the Lightning without its leading goal scorer, but it has a deep lineup. Often in a series, the top lines cancel one another out. The big difference-maker up front in last year’s series was Tampa Bay’s triplets line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Johnson is a game-day decision because of injury, but even without him, the Lightning has solid secondary scoring.

For the Wings to have a chance, they must get something out of Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar and Sheahan. Sheahan had a late-season spurt to get to 14 goals, but Nyquist scored just three times in his last 30 games. For Tatar, it was six. Tatar did show up in last year’s playoffs with three goals in seven games, but Nyquist has yet to make a spring statement. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk might well spark one another, and Dylan Larkin, Brad Richards and Darren Helm could benefit as they’ll face lesser defenders than Datsyuk’s line, but it’s just as crucial that Nyquist and Tatar assert themselves.

On the back end, the defensemen need to be careful with the puck and get involved offensively, as they have in many of the Wings’ victories.

First rounds are tough because teams are just crossing the starting line. As Richards put it: “You’re still trying to find that groove. It’s all about getting hot at the right time. It’s the team that gets the hottest and sustains that.”

The Wings have said many times lately they’ve been playing playoff-type hockey for weeks just to try to get into the playoffs. They’ve been brilliant at times, careless at others. Now that they’re in, will they finally show they can be consistently capable?

The Free Press's Jamie Samuelssen weighed in on "the streak" as it applies to this round:

Is the streak a good thing? Of course it is. Anyone who says otherwise is fooling themselves. The goal is to make the playoffs and advance from there. You can’t advance if you don’t get in. The immediate future of the Detroit Red Wings did not hang in the balance in Saturday’s game in New York. It’s clear that they need to improve, especially when it comes to scoring goals. Regardless of whether they made the playoffs, those discussions and moves were coming this off-season.

This is where the confusion lies, and I’m more than happy to clear it up.

The streak is a good thing. But the season will be a disappointment (and, dare I say, a failure), if they get knocked out in the first round for the third straight season and the fourth in the last five. Do you see what I did there? I coupled a good thing with a bad thing. It is possible to do that.

St. James breaks down the series...

X-factor: As Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman has said, the team that wins the Stanley Cup often is the healthiest one. Ditto that on getting out of the first round. The Wings have all of their players available, and while everyone has bruises this time of year, no one is dealing with something that has lingered. A year ago, it hurt the Wings that Abdelkader missed the first two games with a broken finger -- and injury that continued to affect him even when he played. It has been a devastating few weeks for Tampa Bay, losing Stralman and Stamkos to longer-term injuries, and there being questions about the serieslong viability of Hedman and forwards Ryan Callahan (lower body) and Kucherov. In the factor of health, there's a clear winner. Advantage: Wings.

And the beat writers debated:

Mitch Albom

Will the Wings win this series? No. It’s great the streak continued, but it doesn’t bode well that the last two regular-season games were losses, even when the Wings were determined to win. The Lightning without Stamkos is still pretty tough and has muscle memory from last year’s Cup final.

How far will the Wings go? Six games, and a learning experience for Jeff Blashill and the young guns.

Cup finals pick: Capitals over Stars in six.

2. The Macomb Daily's Chuck Pleiness offers 3 reasons why the Wings will advance and 3 reasons why they won't:

1. Win one for Pav: If this is indeed Pavel Datsyuk’s last season in Detroit it could provide the spark the team needs to try and hand him another Stanley Cup before he returns to Russia. “If this is his final last run let’s make it a good one,” Niklas Kronwall said.

2. Banged up Bolts: Tampa Bay will be without its top forward, Steven Stamkos, and one of its top defensemen, Anton Stralman, in the series. Stamkos had surgery to treat a blood clot near his right collarbone, while Stralman is sidelined with a non-displaced fracture on his left fibula.

Tyler Johnson, who torched the Wings for six goals in last year’s playoffs, is also banged up and will be a game-time decision for Game 1.

3. Bad Brad: Brad Richards knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup and Wings coach Jeff Blashill will rely on him to help lead Detroit to another.

“There’s no question he’s done that throughout his career,” Blashill said. “He’s got an ability to be calm under pressure so as the pressure increases as the moment gets bigger he stays calm. He knows how to manage his body throughout the year so he’s in a good spot come playoff time. We’ve got him up in the top few lines. We did that on purpose because we think he’s a guy that when the pressure increases he stays calm and continues to make plays.”

3. MLive offers the following:

Scott DeCamp spoke with Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury regarding the Wings' situation:

"Detroit got a little bit lucky. They backed into the playoffs, they kept their streak alive," Roenick said during Tuesday's NBC Sports Group 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs conference call with media that also featured Milbury.

"œI would have to think in that locker room there'™s a little bit of release that they are there. I think with release comes a little bit of a better thinking mentality; they might go out there thinking that people are thinking they'™re the underdog and being that underdog and having that, I think that burn of them losing last year the way that they did to Tampa, I wouldn't be surprised if Detroit comes out flying, they use that speed that Mike just talked about to upset Tampa."

The Red Wings secured their 25th straight playoff berth despite closing the regular season with road losses to Boston (5-2) and the New York Rangers (3-2).

In the first round of the playoffs last season, Detroit held a 3-2 series lead against Tampa Bay with Game 6 at Joe Louis Arena before the Lightning rallied against the Red Wings and advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

"If you're a Detroit supporter, you can't be happy with the way they finished the season," Milbury said. "They were spanked in Boston and they were sort of embarrassed, I think, in New York. It was a game that demonstrated that even a depleted New York Ranger lineup could handle the Detroit Red Wings. They'™re not on fire by any stretch of the imagination.

"The goaltending has been all of a sudden suspect. At first it was (Jimmy) Howard, then it was (Petr) Mrazek at the No. 1 goaltender and you thought they were fine, and now there are some issues."

Ansar Khan noted the Blashill-Cooper relationship...

Blashill joked that Cooper "must have been a bad lawyer" to get into coaching.

"I think Coop's journey is great," Blashill said. "In the end he followed his passion. I was with him the day he left for Texarkana to leave his law business for good and go to a spot that not many people have been to that certainly is not a hockey hotbed. I watched him grow a junior program from scratch in Texarkana. It was a pretty big risk but he followed his passion. Same thing I'd say to young people, follow your passion and good things will happen and they certainly have for him."

What advice would Cooper give Blashill?

"Your first year just lose the first round and then that next year you might have a chance to go to the final," Cooper said.

And Khan spoke with the Red Wings regarding their desire to "do some damage" in the playoffs:

"We have a good team," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "We believe in ourselves. I thought we had a good process this year, but we know the first round is probably the toughest. We have a good enough team to do some damage and we're looking forward to doing it."

The Red Wings have every reason to believe they can play with the Lightning, who finished only four points ahead of them. Detroit had Tampa Bay on the ropes last year, leading the series 3-2, before losing 1-0 in Game 7. The teams split their season series this year, each winning twice at home.

The Red Wings are healthy. The Lightning won't have their captain and leading goal-scorer Steven Stamkos (blood clot near collar bone) or key defenseman Anton Stralman (broken leg) for the series.

"When we play the right way we can play with anybody," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "That's the feeling in here. Last year was very tight. I thought we had them on the ropes, but let it slip away from us. That's something we won't let happen again."

4. The Detroit News offers the following:

Bob Wojnowski leads things off with an interview with Henrik Zetterberg, Kronwall and Blashill:

“In here, we don’t really worry what other people think and the numbers they see,” Henrik Zetterberg said. “It’s been proven before they’ve been wrong. We’re here now and we have a good enough team to do some damage. We’re looking forward to doing it.”

As the captain and respected leader, Zetterberg is required to believe this and pass it along to the younger players. And he’s right that the numbers have been proven wrong many times, for and against the Wings.

This is why getting into the playoffs is always the goal, forever and ever, no matter if an early exit elicits cries of impatience or demands for an overhaul. No, it’s not the ultimate goal and the Wings aren’t satisfied merely keeping it alive. If anything, the longer it goes without an extended run, the more pressure mounts on general manager Ken Holland and his staff.

It’s a beast of their own making, sure, and another short run should spur roster changes. But the obvious truth is, the only way a franchise gets to keep making last runs is to keep getting in. Datsyuk, 37, Zetterberg, 35, and Niklas Kronwall, 35, don’t have a lot left, and one rising youngster that was going to save them, goalie Petr Mrazek, buckled and lost his job, for now. The Wings don’t appear to be in great shape for a run, which isn’t much different than a year ago.

“For a few of us here, we know the chances of going all the way is getting less and less,” said Zetterberg, who led the team with 50 points. “When you’ve been in the league over 10 years, you know your time is running out. It’s not just (Datsyuk), you never know when you get a chance again. ... The last couple years, the exits have been too early, we want to go deeper. Last year we were close, gave them a helluva series, and I thought we played well enough to move on. It’s no different this year.”

Ted Kulfan discussed the Eurotwins' reunion...

If this truly is Pavel Datsyuk’s final playoff run with the Red Wings, he’ll have a familiar linemate to start. Datsyuk was on a line with Henrik Zetterberg – Justin Abdelkader was on the other wing – during Tuesday’s practice, as coach Jeff Blashill looks to find an offensive spark. Datsyuk and Zetterberg have thrived before, and Blashill hopes it can happen one more time.

“We’ll make a decision (Wednesday) on the finality of the lineup,” Blashill said. “But that’s how we practiced.”

Blashill hopes to find balance and strengthen his lineup top to bottom.

“We’d still like to get 2 percent better, we think we’re on a quest to continue to improve as a hockey team,” Blashill said. “Sometimes those two (Zetterberg, Datsyuk) together, the spark they provide, not only each other but to our team, can be a real positive thing. We’ll see.”

Blashill has used the Zetterberg-Datsyuk pairing infrequently this season. The veterans continued to pace the Red Wings’ offense this season, with Zetterberg leading the team in points (50) and Datsyuk one behind.

And Riley Sheahan's net-front role:

Sheahan’s ability to create havoc around the crease could be a crucial tipping point in this series against Tampa Bay. Game 1 is Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Fox Sports Detroit.

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop is 6-foot-7 and covers much of the net and can see over opposing players. Whatever the Red Wings can do to disrupt Bishop’s vision or concentration will be important.

“I don’t think he really likes chaos in front of him,” Sheahan said. “He’s a big guy, he can see over a lot of people. It would be huge to get pucks there and create havoc and score some dirty goals. Being in front of the net will be huge for us.”

Sheahan believes the entire roster has picked up the intensity over the last few weeks while getting into the playoffs.

“All of our guys are bearing down, and especially that last little run in making the playoffs,” Sheahan said. “I’m feeling comfortable and playing with some good players.”

Gregg Krupa examined 5 keys for the Red Wings to defeat the Lightning...

Own the offensive crease: Just as the Wings need strong defensive structure to keep forwards away from their goalies, they need to descend upon Bishop.

Jeff Blashill calls it “getting above” the opponents’ defense. Among others, Justin Abdelkader, who must do a lot of the work, talks about “owning their crease.”

If you start seeing Red Wings consistently behind the Lightning defenders with consistency, that will be their best shot at beating Bishop.

It requires strength, guile and determination and produces the sort of “dirty” or “greasy” goals that so often mean the difference in the playoffs.

And Krupa spoke with Milbury and Roenick:

Jeremy Roenick, NBC analyst and former player: “This (series) is a tough one for me. I think with Stamkos out, Stralman out, those are two huge holes on offense and defense that you can’t replace.

“The one thing that Tampa has going for them is their goaltender. Ben Bishop was up in the top goaltenders all year in terms of stats and his play. But Detroit got lucky. They backed into the playoffs. They kept their streak alive. I would have to think in that locker room there is a little bit of sense of release that they are there.

“I think with relief comes a little bit of, I think, a better thinking mentality. They might go out there thinking they’re the underdogs. I think that burn of them losing last year the way that they did to Tampa, I wouldn’t be surprised if Detroit comes out flying. They (can) use their speed to upset Tampa. I think it’s the best opportunity for them to beat them, because of the injuries.”

Kulfan broke down both every non-Wings playoff series and the Wings-Bolts playoff series...

SPECIAL TEAMS

Lightning: Even with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and a variety of offensive threats, the Lightning was lousy on the power play (No. 28, 15.8 percent). Still, not having Stamkos and his lethal one-timer from the dot is going to be missed. The penalty kill ranked No. 7 (84 percent) and has some of the league’s best killers in Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette.

Red Wings: After a season-long struggle, the power play found some consistency the final month and ranked 13th (18.8 percent). A big factor was the net-front presence of Riley Sheahan and Justin Abdelkader. Mike Green and Brad Richards do a good job passing the puck and can deliver it to the net. Richards has had plenty of playoff success. The penalty kill ranked 14th (81.5 percent) but struggled the second half, mainly because of the goaltending issues and not having Drew Miller (knee surgery), one of the NHL’s best penalty killers.

Edge: Even

And the staff writers made their picks:

Gregg Krupa: It has been a bit of a whack-a-mole season for the Red Wings: Solve one problem in their performance, another pops up. Fix it, and there is another, or the old one pops up again. Some difficulties generally persist. Defensive coverage is too often inconsistent and goals are too hard to come by. Character is a greater positive than skill, but intensity sometimes eludes them, nonetheless. Lightning in seven.

5. The Windsor Star's Bob Duff wrote an article about Dylan Larkin for the Windsor Star...

Blashill’s advice to Larkin was twofold — savour the opportunity, but live for the moment.

“It’s no different message than the rest of the team, no different message than when we’ve been in big situations — enjoy the moment, enjoy this,” Blashill said. “These are the opportunities you play for, but focus on the process, focus on the shift-by-shift details it takes to be successful.”

As the Wings battled down the stretch just to ensure that they would indeed be playoff participants, Larkin figures he’s already tasted at the very least a sampling of what to expect beginning Wednesday.

“I think we played in a lot of games similar to playoff games and you look at that most recent Philly game that we played,” Larkin said. “I’ve got to assume that’s close to a playoff game. For me, I’ll be really excited and skating hard and just doing my part to try and help the team. I don’t think I’m going to try and do anything too spectacular, just play my game.”

Just playing his game was good enough to earn Larkin a spot on the roster as a teenager and it’s been good enough to allow him to score more goals than any Detroit player this season. No one should expect that to change just because the season changes from regular to post. The Wings learned plenty about Larkin and Larkin figures he’s learned much about himself as an NHL rookie.

“How much I love playing hockey every day,” Larkin said of what he discovered the most. “I knew I always loved it, the games, the preparation and everything going into it, but this has been the best year ever and so much fun. I’m really excited to start this playoff run. I didn’t expect it coming into the summer. This is bonus time for me. I just wanted to make the team and now here I am in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And he wrote a practice notebook for Hockeybuzz, discussing Jimmy Howard's resurgence and the Eurotwins' reunion:

Written off as recently as a couple of months ago, it’s safe to say if not for Howard’s work down the stretch, Detroit’s consecutive run as a playoff team would have also been written off.

“I'm just looking forward to the challenge of going out there and competing with the guys,” said Howard, who hasn’t seen post-season action since Game 3 of Detroit’s 2014 first-round series against the Boston Bruins. “No one person can go out there and do it by themselves during the playoffs. You need to collectively as a group be pulling in the same direction. I think we have that within our group.”

Pulling was what was happening too frequently to Howard as he struggled through a terrible drought in December and January. Often, in games in which he was the starting goalie, he wasn’t the closing goalie.

“I never wavered confidence,” Howard said as he worked to come out of his funk. “If I did that, I wouldn't be in the NHL. It was just a thing of needing to get some puck luck and a couple bounces here and there to go my way and just try and get the ball rolling again.”

 

 

C. Among the out-of-town series previews, on a source-by-source basis:

1. USA Today "Ranked the Stanley Cup contenders"...

15 - Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings nearly saw their playoff streak end at 24 seasons. But they’re back, even if they’re more of a bubble team than a legitimate contender. This is a low-event team that excels at limiting scoring chances, yet still is 17th in goals against. It’s not like Jimmy Howard has been great; he’s just been better than the struggling Petr Mrazek. Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have passed their peak and Dylan Larkin, at 19, can’t be counted on to carry the offense. With Datsyuk hinting that it could be his last year in the NHL, rallying around him might be their only chance.

Kevin Allen broke down every series by "watchability"...

6. Detroit Red Wings vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Why the Lightning will win: Ben Bishop has been exceptional in net, and this Lightning team learned much from its trip to the Stanley Cup Final last season. The Lightning are still a scary offensive team, but their strength is defensive excellence, defined by a 2.41 goals-against average. That ranked fifth-best in the NHL.

Why the Red Wings will win: The Lightning are banged up physically with Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman out with injuries; Victor Hedman will play with an injury. But the Red Wings are comfortable playing the Lightning. They took the Lightning to a Game 7 in the first round last season. But they will need goalie Jimmy Howard to have one of his best playoff series to win against Tampa Bay.

And USA Today's staff writers made their series picks:

TAMPA BAY LIGHTING VS. DETROIT RED WINGS

Kevin Allen: Red Wings in 7. Pavel Datsyuk's last hurrah for Red Wings is an upset over Stevie Y's team.

Jimmy Hascup: Lightning in 7. Look to the Lightning's injuries (Steven Stamkos, Anton Stralman) as the only reasons the Red Wings make this a long series. Tampa Bay is still very deep, while the Red Wings' goaltending will be a problem.

Peter Barzilai: Red Wings in 7. The Lightning are just too banged up to overcome a team they should otherwise beat with ease. The Red Wings took Tampa Bay to seven games last year before succumbing, and they’ll have some extra motivation as they try to send Pavel Datsyuk out on a high note.

Kristen Shilton: Lightning in 6. Even with a roster depleted by critical injuries, the Lightning are the better team in the goaltending category and that’s what’s going to matter most.

Mike Brehm: Lightning in 6. The Lightning’s 2015 run gives them the knowledge of what it takes to win in the playoffs.

Kevin Allen also asked GM's to weigh in on the parity that takes place during the first round:

The salary cap is the primary reason for the competitiveness, but there are other factors. “It’s the coaching fraternity,” Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland said. “Coaches work together at the Olympics and they exchange ideas. They work together at the world championships and they have symposiums. Plus, the league hasn’t expanded in 15 years. There are a few stars and a lot of good players on every team. “

Holland said he believes every playoff team is capable of winning their first-round match-up. “The big question is can you keep going and win a second, third and fourth series,” Holland said. “That’s what this tournament is about.”

2. Yahoo Sports' Greg Wyshynski ranked each playoff series by "sexiness":

6. Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Detroit Red Wings

Star Power – 5

Secondary Plotlines – 8

Hate Factor – 4

Controversy Quotient – 4

Arena Atmosphere – 9

Game 7 Probability – 6

Beard-o-sity – 6

SEXINESS RANKING: 42

This series was ranked last in the 2015 edition, and it actually lost a couple of points on its score this time thanks to the absence of Steven Stamkos. Where this series is at its best is in the secondary plotlines, which include whether Tampa can win despite its massive injury losses and whether the Red Wings can extend Pavel Datsyuk’s last ride; and in arena atmosphere, as both arenas bring it on the postseason. But as first-round series go, this one isn’t necessarily “must-see.”

3. NHL.com's Kevin Woodley issued a definitive Howard-vs-Bishop analysis...

POSITIONING: The smooth-skating Howard backed off from being perhaps the NHL's most aggressive goalie three seasons ago, but still likes to play beyond the edge of his crease on rush chances and will even get outside the blue ice on end-zone play. Howard appears effortless when playing well, almost like he is gliding compared to the push-stop mechanics of others. But his preference for backwards flow off the rush can creep into other situations, leaving him moving too much and backing in too far.

Bishop also appears to have retreated a little this season, still getting his 6-foot-7 frame to the edge of his crease when the puck is at the point but wandering beyond that less frequently. Even a slightly more conservative positioning helps Bishop reduce the extra movements that inevitably open up holes in his massive frame, and he hasn't backed off far enough that coverage is an issue.

Advantage: Because extremes tend to be more exploitable, Bishop.

And 21 experts from the NHL Network and NHL.com made their picks, with 4 out of 21 panelists picking the Wings to defeat the Bolts.

4. Fox Sports simulated the match-ups via WhatIfSports.com, they invite you to run your own Wings-Bolts results.

5. The CBC's Jesse Campigotto penned a set of series previews:

TAMPA BAY VS. DETROIT

Lightning: 46-31-5 (97 points), finished 2nd in Atlantic Division.

Red Wings: 41-30-11 (93 points), finished 3rd in Atlantic Division.

Regular-season series: Tied 2-2-0.

Series opener: Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET (CBC TV, CBC Sports app).

Chances of winning: Tampa Bay 58%, Detroit 42%.
Let's pause to appreciate…

Tampa Bay's ability to handle drama. It's been a rough year for the Lightning since coming within two wins of capturing the Stanley Cup. Unable (or unwilling) to agree with the team on an extension, franchise player Steven Stamkos played out the final season of his deal amid trade rumours and talk that he'll bolt, perhaps for hometown Toronto, in the summer. To his credit, Stamkos scored 36 goals, but now he's out with a blood clot in his arm and it's uncertain whether he'll ever suit up for the Lightning again. Top-pair defenceman Anton Stralman is sidelined with a broken leg, and the status of Tyler Johnson – one third of the "Triplets" line that propelled Tampa last year – is up in the air after he was hurt in the season finale. Another Triplet, Nikita Kucherov, is nicked up, and so is No. 1 defenceman Victor Hedman. Then there's Jonathan Drouin, who asked to be traded, got demoted to the minors, and was twice suspended for not showing up for his AHL team. The 21-year-old is now back with the Lightning, who seem desperate for his scoring ability, especially on the power play.
On the flip side...

Tampa has an ace in the hole in Ben Bishop, who led the league in goals-against average (2.06) and finished second in save percentage (.926) to the Blues' Brian Elliott, who started 22 fewer games. The big man should give the Lightning the edge at the game's most important position. Detroit is trying to resurrect Jimmy Howard, who had a horrible start to the season but has reclaimed the No. 1 job after Petr Mrazek fell into a slump of his own.

Prediction: Tampa Bay in 7.

6. TSN's Scott Cullen went the power rankings route...

14.    DETROIT RED WINGS  41-30-11
THIS WEEK: 14 LAST WEEK: 16
GF
: 2.55 GA: 2.67 SA CF%: 51.7
PP%: 18.8 PK%: 81.5
Preseason Rank: 17
Average Rank: 12.80
Key Injuries: RW Johan Franzen (concussion)
That was unexpected: Detroit’s preseason ranking was a little lower because centre Pavel Datsyuk was still recovering from surgery on his ankle. While rookie Dylan Larkin was better than advertised, and goaltender Petr Mrazek was strong for most of the season, there were a lot of Wings that produced less than they have in previous years.

7. As did CBS Sports' Chris Peters...

15. Red Wings: They might have backed into the postseason, but it doesn't matter how you get there, just that you do. For Detroit, it's 25 straight seasons of making the playoffs. This streak is one of the more remarkable feats in pro sports, especially considering they're competing in a salary-cap league now.

8. While the Toronto Sun's Lance Hornby penned a set of conventional series previews:

RED WINGS (41-30-11, 3rd in Atlantic) vs. LIGHTNING (46-31-5, 2nd in Atlantic)

2016 season series: Tied 2-2-0 /  Playoffs: Lightning lead 1-0 in all-time series

Red Wings: The Red Wings made it into the playoffs for the 25th consecutive year, the longest streak in North American pro sports, despite losing their final two games. Jimmy Howard has taken over as the starting goalie after Petr Mrazek faltered. Whether hotshot rookie Dylan Larkin can handle the pressure that comes with playoffs will be intriguing. Goals can be a challenge for Detroit, and of the 16 playoff teams, its 211 during the regular season were the fewest. Older players such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have seen their best days. Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader must find post-season consistency.

Lightning: Captain Steven Stamkos and top-pair defenceman Anton Stralman are hurt, but Tampa got a boost when Tyler Johnson, who had been day-to-day with an upper-body injury, practised on Tuesday. The Lightning has managed to endure through adversity, and after all of it, Jonathan Drouin could become a positive factor. Victor Hedman, in the conversation for the Norris Trophy, was not overworked during the regular season, and that should benefit him. With Stamkos out, Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn all will have to find a higher gear. Ben Bishop, meanwhile, should get more than a few Vezina votes.

WINGS’ KEY PLAYER

Does Pavel Datsyuk want to leave the NHL on a whimper? We don’t think so.

BOLTS’ KEY PLAYER

Goalie Ben Bishop, even moreso with his team’s injuries, has to be a difference-maker.

WHO WINS?

As much as the Lightning is banged up, many of those who are healthy are battle-hardened from a trip to the Stanley Cup final last year, when the Blackhawks beat Tampa in six games. The Lightning beat the Wings in seven games in the opening round last year. We sense a repeat.

9. Sportsnet issued expert picks...

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING vs. DETROIT RED WINGS

Corey Hirsch: Lightning in 5
Damien Cox: Lightning
Doug MacLean: Red Wings in 7
Roger Millions: Lightning in 6
John Shannon: Lightning in 6
Chantal Desjardins: Red Wings in 6
Mark Spector: Red Wings in 7
Thomas Drance: Lightning in 5
Sean McIndoe (Down Goes Brown): Lightning in 7
Dan Murphy: Red Wings
Nick Kypreos: Red Wings in 7
Chris Johnston: Lightning in 6
Leah Hextall: Lightning in 6
Gene Principe: Red Wings in 5
Luke Fox: Lightning in 5
Eric Engels: Red Wings in 7

As well as a video pitting Ben Bishop against Dylan Larkin:

10. The Canadian Press listed a series of Canadian players to watch on each playoff team...

Detroit - Mike Green: It's still odd to see Green in a Red Wings sweater after a career spent in the U.S. capital, but the Calgary native is indeed an important part for Detroit. He isn't the same star who scored 31 goals in 2008-09, but Green can still skate like few others on the back-end and remains a helpful power-play piece for the Red Wings.

11. And the Associated Press rounds things out with a conversation with Brad Richards about making the playoffs as a segue to the Wings-Bolts preview:

“Last night was tough sleeping. You start thinking about the crowd, the attention. This is why you play. This is why you go through that grind of 82 games and train all summer to get yourself ready because there’s nothing like this time of year,” said Richards, who turns 36 on May 2. "And the way the NHL is now, you just don’t know what can happen when you get on a run and get confidence.”

...

Some things to know about the Lightning and Red Wings:

STOP THE PUCK: Lightning goalie Ben Bishop was superb during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup final and is a Vezina Trophy candidate this season, ranking among the league’s best in goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts. Jimmy Howard has become Detroit’s No. 1 goalie again after getting beat out earlier in the season by Petr Mrazek. Mrazek started all seven games last year in the playoffs, shutting out the Lightning twice and giving up only one goal in Game 7 that Tampa Bay won 2-0. “It was probably one of our tougher series last year,” Bishop said. “They’re going to have a chip on their shoulder. They’re going to have that in the back of their minds … that little extra motivation.”

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Tyler Johnson scored six goals - two in three games - and had an assist in Tampa Bay’s four wins in the first round against Detroit last year. In the Red Wings’ three wins in the series, they didn’t let Johnson get a point. “I think the biggest thing is try to take away as much space as possible,” Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “I thought we did a pretty good job overall, but there were times in games when we gave him too much room.”

DROUIN FACTOR: It’s unclear how much young Tampa Bay prospect Jonathan Drouin will play after spending most of the season in the minor leagues after requesting a trade and later serving a suspension for refusing to play for Syracuse of the AHL. He was a healthy scratch in 20 of 26 playoff games last year. The 2013 first-round draft pick scored in his first two games after being recalled last week.

STREAKING, NOT SATISFIED: Detroit extended its postseason streak to 25 this season, the longest active streak in North America’s four major sports leagues and a run that is tied for the third longest in NHL history. “There is a lot of pride in here,” Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “You don’t want to be a part of that team that loses it, so of course it was nice to get in. There was no hiding that, but at the same time there’s a chance for us to do some damage here.” The Red Wings, though, have been eliminated in the opening round in three of the past four years and haven’t made it past the second round since 2009 when they came within a win of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.

GOOD BUDDIES: Coach Jeff Blashill, who has the Red Wings in the playoffs in his first season behind the bench, is a close friend of Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I’m really happy for him. … I just wish we weren’t playing each other until the (Stanley Cup) final,” Cooper said. “I know that’s unrealistic. I guess the bright side of it is one of us is going to advance.”

Filed in: | The Malik Report | Permalink
 

Comments

stonehands-78's avatar

Thank you!, GJM

L.G.R.W.

Posted by stonehands-78 from the beginning ... a WingsFan, on 04/13/16 at 08:58 AM ET

Mastermuk's avatar

Appreciate your work, George. I don’t think an apology has ever been necessary in regards to your writing. At least in the last couple years since I’ve been a lurker.

Posted by Mastermuk on 04/13/16 at 09:12 AM ET

Avatar

I’m surprised how many “experts” are picking the Red Wings. I think it just goes to show that many haven’t actually watched much Red Wings hockey this year and are simply basing it on history. Even with the Bolts injuries, I don’t think the Wings can keep pace.

I’ll be rooting for them though. Go Wings!

Posted by evileye on 04/13/16 at 10:27 AM ET

PierreC's avatar

Maybe we still have the not so good month of march in our mind, but before that we were fighting with the Panthers for top in the conference.

Maybe the month of march was just not the real Wings ? Maybe they are starting to night ?

Posted by PierreC from Montreal, Canada on 04/13/16 at 12:55 PM ET

Avatar

“Month of March”??? The Wings were pretty horrible all season long. They put together 60 minutes of quality hockey maybe 3 times this season with one being that last game against the Flyers. They were extremely lucky they didn’t get buried early on but the whole Eastern Conference, except Washington, struggled to find consistency.

I’d love to think they can switch a switch and suddenly stop the turnovers, make clean passes and have a strong forecheck but 82 games of hockey points to the contrary.

I’m really not negative, just more of a realist. I watch this team and a I see a serious lack of cohesion, lack of physicality and something not right with their work ethic. I cannot imagine how that translates to playoff wins.

Boy do I hope I’m wrong.

Posted by evileye on 04/13/16 at 01:52 PM ET

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The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.

 

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