Red Wings vs. Lightning: Preview and Prediction for 2015 NHL Playoffs Matchup

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2015

Red Wings vs. Lightning: Preview and Prediction for 2015 NHL Playoffs Matchup

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    The Detroit Red Wings are the NHL's metronome, because they make the Stanley Cup playoffs every year. The last time the Red Wings failed to show up for the postseason was the 1989-90 season.

    However, the playoffs still have a fresh feel for the Red Wings since they moved from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference prior to the 2013-14 season. They are facing a new roster of opponents, and that keeps things fresh for the organization, its players and fans.

    Even though the Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning are meeting in the postseason for the first time, this matchup should still have plenty of emotion attached to it. Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman has done a superb job of putting together a fast and explosive roster capable of filling up the net and rolling up big scores.

    Yzerman, of course, is also a legendary former Red Wings superstar. While nobody eclipses Gordie Howe, Yzerman can make a strong case for his position as the No. 2 player in team history as he walks with giants like Ted Lindsay and Nicklas Lidstrom.

    But this will not be a series for nostalgia, since both teams have aspirations for deep playoff runs. The Lightning fell just short of catching division rival Montreal for first place in the regular season, while the Red Wings survived a late-season stumble to finish third in the Atlantic Division.

    The Lightning finished the season as the No. 1 scoring team in the regular season with an average of 3.16 goals per game. The Red Wings had the second-best power play in the league, connecting on 23.8 percent of their man-advantage opportunities.

    Those two aspects will be worth watching in this series, but there are several others that are worth noting. This slideshow will look at every aspect of this series and offers the complete TV schedule.

Regular-Season Recap

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Tampa Bay Lightning

    The Lightning (50-24-8) set the tone for a strong regular season early in the year, when they got out of the gate with an 11-3-1 mark. Included in that run was a 7-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, the team that defeated them in four consecutive playoff games last April.

    The Lightning had a healthy Steven Stamkos all season, and that allowed the team to play steady hockey throughout the entire campaign. The Lightning did not lose more than two games in a row throughout the regular season, although they did lose four out of five at one point in December. The Lightning showed the ability to score important goals at key moments, and that made them one of the most formidable teams in the Eastern Conference.

    Detroit Red Wings

    There were no guarantees the Red Wings (43-25-14) would be able to continue their streak of playoff appearances as the season got underway. Head coach Mike Babcock appeared to have a team that was in transition with older superstars like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk joining forces with young, talented players who were trying to establish themselves at the NHL level.

    That's often a recipe for inconsistent play, but the Red Wings found their stride fairly early in the season as they went 6-2-2 through their first 10 games. The team stumbled in December with six straight losses, but it showed its true colors by winning nine of 10 in a span bridging January and February.

    The Red Wings were not at their best down the stretch, but they managed to hold on to third place in the division with three wins in their final five games.

Schedule and TV Info

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Game 1

    Thursday, April 16

    7:30 p.m. ET
    Detroit at Tampa Bay
    CNBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports

    Game 2

    Saturday, April 18 

    3 p.m. ET
    Detroit at Tampa Bay 
    NBC, CBC, TVA Sports

    Game 3

    Tuesday, April 21 

    7:30 p.m. ET
    Tampa Bay at Detroit
    NBCSN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports

    Game 4

    Thursday, April 23 

    7 p.m. ET
    Tampa Bay at Detroit
    NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports

    Game 5*

    Saturday, April 25

    TBD
    Detroit at Tampa Bay
    TBD

    Game 6*

    Monday, April 27

    TBD
    Tampa Bay at Detroit
    TBD

    Game 7*

    Wednesday, April 29

    TBD
    Detroit at Tampa Bay
    TBD

    *If necessary.

Key Storylines

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Will Steven Stamkos dominate?

    Steven Stamkos, 25, just completed his seventh season in the NHL, and he begins his third foray into the NHL playoffs. He was a star in his first trip to the postseason in 2011, when he scored 13 points in 18 games as the Lightning made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, he was still recovering from a brutal broken leg last year, when Tampa Bay was swept in the first round.

    Stamkos scored 43 goals and added 29 assists this season, and his explosive speed and shot allow him to take over many games. He should be able to assert himself against the Red Wings.

    How much do Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have left in the tank?

    When Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk are at their best, both are artists on the ice. However, the 34-year-old Zetterberg appears to have lost at least a step, and he has to depend on his savvy rather than his once-formidable physical gifts at this point. Zetterberg was effective with 17 goals and 49 assists this season, and his ability to outsmart the opposition cannot be overlooked.

    Datsyuk, 36, was the most dazzling player in the league at the height of his powers. His ability to fake, deke and hang opposing goalies out to dry has been his calling card for years. However, Datsyuk has been slowed by nagging injuries, which is why he was limited to 63 games this season. Even though he scored 26 goals and tallied 39 assists, there was a more cautious aspect to his play than had been apparent in previous seasons. Will Datsyuk be able to turn up his game in the postseason?

    Which team's young stars will step up?

    This series will go far beyond the headliners. The Red Wings have gotten excellent production from Tomas Tatar (56 points), Gustav Nyquist (54 points) and Riley Sheahan (36 points) this season, and all have become dependable scorers. Nyquist is especially creative and often steps up at big moments.

    The Lightning need Tyler Johnson (72 points), Nikita Kucherov (65 points) and Ondrej Palat (63 points) to step up and have big series. It's not just Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan who have to carry the Lightning. Johnson has speed, creativity and the ability to find the open spaces in the offensive zone and take advantage of them. Kucherov and Palat also have game-changing ability, and they have played with consistency.

Players to Watch

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Ryan Callahan, Tampa Bay Lightning

    The 30-year-old Ryan Callahan is more than just a tough, grinding forward who can put the puck in the net at clutch moments. Callahan scored 24 goals and tallied 30 assists for the Lightning this season, but the right wing is perhaps even more valuable for his leadership and swagger. Callahan plays the game without fear, and it's as if he is urging his teammates to climb on his back and come along for the ride. If Callahan is able to assert himself here, the Lightning will be very tough to beat.

    Justin Abdelkader, Detroit Red Wings

    The Red Wings are a mix of high-level veterans and explosive, young players. Justin Abdelkader is one of their top players, and at age 28, he is in the prime of his career. If the Red Wings are going to find a way to beat the higher-seeded team in this playoff matchup, Abdelkader must play to a very high level. The left wing scored 23 goals and had 21 assists this season. Those are decent figures, but the Red Wings need even more from him in the postseason.

    Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

    The 24-year-old Victor Hedman has a chance to be one of the most dominating defenseman in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Hedman combines his impressive 6'6" and 229-pound frame with excellent skating ability and a powerful shot from the point. Hedman can punish opponents who skate in his area, take the puck from them and start the rush up the ice. He has the ability to intimidate opponents, and his all-around skills will play a key role in this series.

Goaltender Breakdown

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    Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

    Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings

    The perception is that Jimmy Howard had somewhat of a down year this season, but his statistics are remarkably similar to what they were in 2013-14. Howard had a 23-13-11 record, a 2.44 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. A year ago, Howard had a 2.66 GAA and the same .910 save percentage he had this season. If you look back further in Howard's career, his GAA and save percentage have both deteriorated to a degree, and he may not be the Red Wings' goalie in future years.

    Head coach Mike Babcock has a solid backup in Petr Mrazek (16-9-2, 2.38 GAA, .918 save percentage), and he has decided to start Mrazek in the first game of the series. If he can backstop the Wings to a win in that game, Babcock would be likely to give him another chance in Game Two.

    Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning

    Ben Bishop has established himself as a fine regular-season goalie with back-to-back impressive performances for the Lightning. He was 40-13-5 this season with a 2.32 GAA and a .916 save percentage, and those last two statistics were just a shade worse than they were in 2013-14 (Tampa Bay was more of a defensive-oriented team a year ago, because it was without Stamkos for much of that season).

    But how good is Bishop? The proof of his all-around ability will come in the playoffs. Bishop has never played in the postseason, so he still has to prove his playoff mettle. He should feel confident against the Red Wings, since he is 7-2-0 against them with a 1.68 GAA and a .936 save percentage.

Biggest Mismatch: 5-on-5 Play

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    Scott Audette/Getty Images

    The Detroit Red Wings have been one of the most impressive teams in the league when it comes to the power play. However, their five-on-five play has been ordinary this year.

    According to NHL.com, Detroit scored 1.05 goals in five-on-five play to every goal the team gave up. That unimpressive figure ranked 14th in the NHL this season, and the only playoff teams that finished behind them in that category were Anaheim and Calgary.

    Playing at full strength is one of Tampa Bay's best characteristics. The Lightning scored 1.28 goals to every goal they gave up in five-on-five situations, and that ranked second in the league behind the Presidents' Trophy-winning New York Rangers.

    If Detroit can't improve in this area, it could prove decisive in this playoff series.

The Lightning Will Win If Stamkos Doesn't Have to Do It by Himself

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The Lightning had an excellent regular season because they functioned well as a team and developed one of the most explosive offensive units in the league. Still, there is the tendency to believe that this team will only go as far as Steven Stamkos can take them.

    That was not the case in the regular season, because Stamkos got plenty of help throughout the year. Tyler Johnson is a versatile center who can pass the puck with pace and accuracy and also take care of his own scoring opportunities. Nikita Kucherov is a sniper who can score clutch goals, while Ryan Callahan is a gritty, nasty forward who doesn't mind taking punishment in order to score goals. Center Valtteri Filppula is one of the team's most versatile players, because he excels at the defensive aspects of the game. Defenseman Victor Hedman can take over the game.

    The Lightning don't need Stamkos to take over every game. If his supporting cast comes through, the Lightning will survive and advance.

The Red Wings Will Win If Their Young Studs Come Through

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    Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

    Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg may be the Red Wings' two biggest names, but the Red Wings can't lay the responsibility for surviving and advancing in the postseason on their shoulders alone.

    Datsyuk and Zetterberg have an excellent supporting cast, and many of the players in that group are young and ready to step up. The two best may be Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist. Tatar is especially quick and can zip into the open spaces and fire quick darts into the open corners of the net. Nyquist also has an excellent shot, and he has a relentless quality that many opponents are not prepared to face.

    Add in Justin Abdelkader, Riley Sheahan and defenseman Danny DeKeyser to give the Red Wings quite a bit of talent outside the Big Two of Datsyuk and Zetterberg. If the Red Wings get the secondary scoring they want, they will have an excellent chance to win this series.

Lightning in Seven

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The Tampa Bay Lightning remember what happened a year ago in the postseason, and the embarrassment of losing four straight games to the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs still stings.

    They have waited a full season to get their opportunity again, and they should be ready to play at their highest level when they step on the ice against the Red Wings.

    The Red Wings are a better team than they were a year ago, when they lost their opening-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins in five games. However, they don't appear to have the same kind of talent as the Lightning. 

    The Red Wings are capable of the upset, in large part because Mike Babcock is behind the bench, and he may be the best head coach in the sport. Jon Cooper is one of the bright, young minds in the game for the Lightning, but you have to give the coaching edge to Babcock.

    Nevertheless, the Lightning are the superior five-on-five team, and they have home-ice advantage. They will use those factors to get past the Red Wings in a series that goes the distance.

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