(Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Tampa Bay has incredible offensive weapons, but they could be vulnerable defensively against Detroit. If the Red Wings can crack the Lightning’s blueline and Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg provide some offense, the first-round matchup between the two squads could get interesting in a hurry.
HOW THEY WIN
LIGHTNING: The Lightning are the highest-scoring team in the NHL and have the ability to put teams away early with a tsunami of shots and play in the offensive zone. Much of Tampa Bay's success comes from its roster's ability to spread out the contributions. No defenseman plays more than 23 minutes a game and, generally speaking, no forward plays more than 20. The fact unheralded Tyler Johnson went into the stretch run of the season battling for the team's scoring lead with Steven Stamkos tells you all you need to know about the Bolts' depth of offense. After struggling on the penalty kill in years past, the Lightning have quietly become a top-10 team on the PK and use their quick-strike ability to be a shorthanded scoring threat. They're also more than big enough to play that “heavy” game that seems to be so successful in the playoffs.
RED WINGS: Prior to the season, Detroit GM Ken Holland said that if the Red Wings could get anything resembling full seasons out of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and their goaltending held up, they would be fine. All those things have happened and the Red Wings have been much more than fine. When Detroit is healthy, it has a ton of depth in the form of four strong lines that can play in any situation and adapt to almost any style of game. Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist are right there with Datsyuk and Zetterberg when it comes to offensive contributions, and they give the Red Wings danger and depth in scoring. Whether it's Jimmy Howard or Jonas Gustavsson or Petr Mrazek, they have the kind of goaltending that is very good and can sometimes be great. They can be sure it won't be a negative deciding factor in a playoff series.
HOW THEY LOSE
LIGHTNING: Despite all that offensive talent, Tampa is a middle-of-the-road team when it comes to the power play, and that part of its game was trending downward as the season progressed. Even though the Lightning generate a lot of shots and are an excellent possession team, they occasionally go through periods in which the “shoot first” mentality disappears, and they try to execute picture-perfect plays instead of keeping things simple. Teams do not get style points in the playoffs. The successful ones can score goals that don't necessarily make the highlight reels. You'd like to see the Bolts get their noses a little dirtier en route to the net. Team defense is also an issue. The Lightning, as one might expect from an offensive juggernaut, get involved a little too often in the run-and-gun type of game at both ends of the ice, a style that never seems to translate well to post-season play.
RED WINGS: It's surprising to say this about a Mike Babcock-coached team that has such great leadership, but the Red Wings really seem to lose their way for extended periods of time. There are games when they simply don't look prepared to play and they get down early and stay down. Datsyuk missed a Florida road trip late in the season with a lower-body injury and, at this stage of his career, longer-term injuries are always a factor. Detroit's strength is in numbers: when they have everyone healthy, they're confident and efficient with the puck and difficult to beat. But it seems if one of those dominos falls, particularly at forward, it causes havoc through their lineup – once the line juggling begins, it seems to throw the entire team out of sync. The Red Wings also go long stretches where they don't produce enough offense to win games.
GOALIE ZONE by Jamie McLennan
LIGHTNING: Ben Bishop has few holes in his game. His lateral movement is the only concern. He uses that big 6-foot-7 frame to his advantage, so if you're a team that's trying to beat him, you have to get him moving post to post. After a first save, it's tougher for him to recover, so getting him moving East-West is an important focus. And I think his backup Andrei Vasilevskiy is going to be an elite goaltender in this league. It's just a matter of time. The Bolts are in pretty good shape no matter what happens.
RED WINGS: The Red Wings have used four different goalies this season, but I still think Jimmy Howard is going to be their guy. Petr Mrazek and Jonas Gustavsson have performed well when called upon, but Howard was having a great season before he got injured, and now the challenge for him is to get back to that form for the post-season. There's nothing Howard does that's spectacular, but he does a lot of things well and is a stable force. Sometimes, around the net, he tends to lose the puck a little bit in his feet or in his butterfly.
LIGHTNING: Do you believe Tampa Bay makes a deep post-season run, as we do? If so, once Steven Stamkos is off the board, trip over yourself to get Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. They've formed the best all-around line in hockey this season but don't have superstar status yet. If you target them in Rounds 2 to 4, you're laughin'.
RED WINGS: Detroit acquired D-man Marek Zidlicky for a reason. He's a power play specialist with a big shot. GM Ken Holland brought Zidlicky over from New Jersey to give him a significant offensive role, so fantasy players should expect a solid contribution from him. He logs more than two minutes of PP time per game.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn More than any other stat, relative shot attempt percentage shows just how good Pavel Datsyuk is. Puck possession is the name of the game in the modern NHL and it’s because of Datsyuk and the Red Wings. Datsyuk had the fourth best mark in the league among forwards and that’ll be a very tough matchup for Steven Stamkos, who was merely average in this regard. Historically, Datsyuk has owned Stamkos and that could be a difference maker in the series. Stamkos’ relative goal percentage is not good, but that’s mostly because the Lightning are such a deep team that any line can score, which mean shutting down Stamkos may not be enough for the Red Wings.
THN PREDICTION: Tampa Bay in six.
READ THN'S OTHER ROUND 1 PREVIEWS IN OUR STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF FEED.