Following up last season's success by improving their standings point total from 101 to 108 and setting a franchise record with 50 wins, the Tampa Bay Lightning have become something of a trendy pick to advance deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Game 1 is Thursday at Amalie Arena, and the past two regular season series against the Detroit Red Wings -- of which the Bolts have won 7 of the last 9 meetings -- would seem to indicate that the Lightning have an advantage heading into the series.
Let's dig a little deeper and see who has the upper hand.
At 5v5, these are two of the best teams left standing in terms of possessing the puck, which is no surprise given Steve Yzerman's connection to the Detroit Red Wings and his preference for the same type of player Detroit has valued for 25 years -- smart, skilled, fast, and relentless at pursuing and controlling the puck.
|Corsi For %||53.0% (4th)||53.5% (3rd)|
|Fenwick For %||53.1% (3rd)||52.0% (11th)|
|Shots For %||53.9% (3rd)||51.4% (12th)|
|Scoring Chances For %||53.8% (2nd)||53.7% (3rd)|
|PDO||101.01 (6th)||99.93 (19th)|
Both teams have been outstanding all season long at carrying play at even strength, not necessarily by outshooting their opponents egregiously but instead by keeping opposing shots and chances down by simply not letting the other guy have a chance to do anything with the puck. The Lightning (3rd) and Red Wings (1st) are two of the top-3 shot suppression teams in the league, often giving their goaltenders very light workloads to deal with. In fact, with the Los Angeles Kings already eliminated, the Lightning and Red Wings are the two best shot suppression teams left in the playoffs.
Detroit drops off just a bit in terms of Fenwick and SOG percentages, suggesting they have a bit more trouble than the Lightning getting shots on net and in the high danger area. They often outchance their opponents, but do so similarly to how they control shots -- by limiting the other teams opportunities. Consider this scoring chance breakdown:
|Chances For/60||29.5 (3rd)||25.4 (19th)|
|Chances Against/60||25.3 (13th)||22.0 (1st)|
Detroit does a fine job of keeping the puck in the offensive third, sure, but what then?
Possessing the puck is important, but many would argue scoring with it is even more important. After all, the object of hockey is to outscore your opponent. You can play keepaway all night but if you can't put pucks in the net it doesn't amount to much, especially in a small sample -- like, say, seven games.
Both teams feature elite scoring talent -- but Tampa Bay's is flanked by considerably more depth, whereas Detroit relies heavily on their big guns to pot goals for them. The raw numbers give Tampa Bay the overall edge in this category (all game states, unless otherwise noted):
|Goals Per Game||3.16 (1st)||2.82 (10th)|
|Shots Per Game||29.6 (T-18th)||29.6 (T-18th)|
|5v5 Shooting %||9.03 (1st)||7.33 (20th)|
|5v5 Corsi For/60||55.94 (8th)||52.70 (23rd)|
Tampa Bay takes the same amount of shots, but converts on significantly more -- while also attempting considerably more shots than Detroit. Tampa Bay's shooting percentage may be due for some regression, but all season long they've been a 5v5 team that controls the flow of play, works the puck into the offensive zone, and converts on both rush opportunities and down-low cycle plays. There's little reason to expect that to change against the Red Wings, whom they've handled easily in the past two seasons.
Steven Stamkos is the obvious difference maker here. His 43 goals are almost as many as the top-two goal scorers for the Red Wings combined (Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist -- 56 goals between them). But the depth favors Tampa Bay as well -- the Bolts had four players reach 20 goals and another eight reach at least 9; nobody on the Red Wings even eclipsed 30 goals, and just nine total players reached that same 9-goal threshold.
Line matching will likely be an important factor here, as the Red Wings look to neutralize one of the top two lines for the Bolts with the ageless two-way virtuoso, Pavel Datsyuk. But that likely leaves Henrik Zetterberg matched up against either Steven Stamkos or Tyler Johnson -- a match-up that favors the Lightning. It's likely, also, that Jon Cooper can exploit Detroit's 4th line, which skates about 2 minutes more on average than Tampa Bay's 4th unit. If Cooper pushes his top-9 with a few extra minutes each, the Lightning might create an offensive advantage that no amount of shot suppression or goaltending can overcome.
Edge: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning have Victor Hedman.
The Detroit Red Wings have ... Niklas Kronwall? Danny DeKeyser?
The clear advantage here goes to the Bolts; Kronwall and DeKeyser are solid NHL defensemen, but Hedman is a legitimate stud #1 defender capable of leading a rush, scoring a big goal, and logging huge minutes against tough opponents. Anton Stralman has very quietly put together an outstanding season; Hedman and Stralman might both be #1s on this Detroit squad.
Jonathan Ericsson has been a boat anchor attached to Kronwall, and while Marek Zidlicky has been a nice trade deadline acquisition, the blue line has not been a strength for the Red Wings this season. Mike Babcock, like Jon Cooper, likes to use L/R alignments for his D pairs when possible. Rookie Alexei Marchenko, with 14 games NHL experience and a right shot, appears likely to draw in for Game 1 over Brendan Smith (a left shot).
Health remains a factor for the Lightning, but with Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr out of no-contact jerseys in practice, they appear ready to go for Game 1. That gives Tampa Bay a projected top-4 group of Hedman-Stralman, Carle-Coburn, with Sustr, Mark Barberio, and Nikita Nesterov available for the third pair. Jason Garrison still looks a little bit away, but once he's healthy, the Lightning might actually boast the deepest blue line in the entire playoff field.
Again, though, the real advantage comes from the top pair for Tampa Bay. Expect Jon Cooper to trot out Hedman-Stralman early and often and force Detroit to try and figure out a way to handle it, which won't be easy.
Edge: Tampa Bay Lightning
Edge: Detroit Red Wings
Yeah, I'm putting that at the start of this section because this isn't remotely in doubt. Detroit is a much, much better coached unit with regards to their power play and penalty kill. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been a comedy of errors on both sides of their non-5v5 units, scraping by on Steven Stamkos' shot and Ben Bishop's very good 4v5 numbers this season.
Of goalies with at least 150 shorthanded minutes, Ben Bishop ranks 3rd in the NHL with a .9112 save percentage, which is almost as good as his 5v5 SV% (.9199). That's not a good thing; Bishop has been outstanding on the penalty kill, routinely bailing out a passive, "hope we don't get scored on" unit that struggles to keep shots and scoring chances to a reasonable level.
Only tank-eriffic Buffalo and Arizona gave up more shots on the penalty kill than the Tampa Bay Lightning this season, and while Detroit was middling in terms of power play shot generation they were deadly in terms of power play goal scoring. Both teams finished in the top 3 in the NHL in 5v4 shooting percentage, but the Red Wings did it with considerably more shots; the Bolts, as any who have watched them extensively this season know, are simply abysmal at generating much in the way of sustained offense on the power play.
The Lightning are unlikely to have much success in this series if they spend much time in the box at all, and they'll have to hope Stamkos and co. can continue to convert on a relatively low number of opportunities in order to have any success on their power play.
Edge: Detroit Red Wings
Both teams are (were?) led by a consistent, if unspectacular former University of Maine Black Bear goaltender in Jimmy Howard and Ben Bishop, and both have an exciting, talented young European netminder backing up (Petr Mrazek and Andrei Vasilevskiy). But then the Red Wings announced that Mrazek would get the start in Game 1. The raw numbers would seem to favor the Red Wings, but with the caveat of a very small sample size for Mrazek in the NHL.
|Ben Bishop||Petr Mrazek|
|High Danger SV%||.8310||.8429|
The only place Bishop has a real advantage is in experience; he's played a lot more games than Mrazek, who is still relatively green in the NHL. Otherwise, Mrazek has been the superior puck-stopper by any metric we have available.
Ultimately, since both teams do such a good job of limiting shots, we may see a few games that end with both teams in the low 20s for shots-on-goal. That means a fluke goal here or there -- or a particularly bad goal allowed -- could make a huge difference in any single game, or even in the series.
The wildcard for the Bolts, of course, is their back-up, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Per War on Ice, he actually has the highest save percentage in the high danger area of any of the potential 4 goaltenders we'll see in this match-up (.9029), miles better than either Bishop or Mrazek, but again with the caveat of a small sample size. Still, he's a much better fallback option than Anders Lindback was a season ago, giving the Lightning something to turn to if Bishop falters at any point.
This one's close, but it's hard to ignore Mrazek's numbers, even in only 29 games played.
Edge: Detroit Red Wings
Though we said this last spring, home ice should be a huge advantage for the Lightning. They were 32-8-1 at Amalie Arena this season and oftentimes looked near unbeatable in their own rink. Jon Cooper should be able to get the match-ups he wants, getting either Steven Stamkos or Tyler Johnson on and away from Pavel Datsyuk.
Both teams are going to play the same way, so it comes down to a matter of who plays the possess-and-attack style better. If Tampa Bay can keep the game mostly at 5v5 and gets solid (if unspectacular) goaltending, their forward depth and the advantage created by their top defensive pair should be enough to put away the Red Wings, even with their special teams and goaltending advantage.
Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning in six