Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Post Season Prediction Time!

Playoff Beard Circa 2010-11
The sun is out. The long johns are back in storage. I’m growing a beard. That can mean only one thing.  PLAYOFF HOCKEY!  That’s right! It’s the best time of the year (other than Christmas -Christmas is the best). For the second straight year there is late April action in Hockey Bay, USA.

After a record-setting regular season campaign, the Lightning find themselves with home ice advantage against the Detroit Red Wings, a match-up that everyone was quick to dub The Yzerman Bowl. Oddly enough, for the first time all year, Mr. Yzerman has almost no control over what happens.  The rosters are set. He can’t pull off any more trades, sign any free agents, or tinker with the roster at all.  He can only sit high in the press box and scowl down at the ice. Luckily he’s pretty good at scowling.

Not a scowl, but c'mon how could I not post this picture? (Photo from COMC.com)

It’s understandable why the focus is on Mr. Yzerman. After all, he did have a Hall-of-Fame career with the Red Wings, learned the GM trade at the foot of Detroit General Manager Ken Holland and built the Lightning in the model of the Wings.  Besides what else are we going to focus on? Drew Miller going against his old team?

How do I feel two days away from game one?  Kind of excited. This should be an entertaining match-up between two teams with skill. I think the Bolts match-up pretty well against the Red Wings, but then again I thought they matched up well against the Canadiens last year and that didn’t turn out so well.

Detroit is a good, but not great team with a bit of a goalie problem and some aging stars. If the Lightning can generate turnovers (something they failed to do against Montreal last year) I‘m cautiously optimistic that they can take the series.  Detroit is a team that doesn’t make many mistakes so the Lightning will have to take advantage when they can.

While this is the first playoff match-up against the two franchises, a lot of the players that will be taking the ice have played against each other with a championship on the line. In 2013, the Syracuse Crunch (AHL affiliate of the Lightning) lost to the Grand Rapid Giffins (AHL affiliate of the Red Wings) in the Calder Cup finals.  Six current members of the Lightning roster (Andrej Sustr, Mark Barberio, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Vlad Namestnikov, JT Brown) and nine current members of the Red Wings  (Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Landon Ferraro, Luke Glendening, Danny Dekeyser, Petr Mrazek) played in that series.

See what I mean about Mr. Yzerman copying the Red Wings philosophy? Draft well and develop your in-house talent.  I don’t have the time or inclination to see if two franchises have ever had that many players meet in a Calder Cup series and a NHL playoff series, but to me it seems highly unlikely.  Hopefully the TampaCuse boys can exact some revenge against the team that beat them two years ago.

As I was doing that research I was kind of surprised that many young players skated on the Red Wings roster. To me the Red Wings were an aging franchise relying on offense from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and questionable hits from Niklas Kronwall.  Shows you how much of the Red Wings I’ve watched this year, eh?  I’ll blame that on my work schedule.

The biggest question mark for the Red Wings is going to be in the net.  After riding out the end of the season immersed in a goaltending battle with incumbent Jimmy Howard, Mrazek emerged as the starter. He finished the season with a 35-save shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes and in his last start against the Lightning on March 28th he turned away all 23 shots he faced in the Wings only win against Tampa.  So he should have some confidence going into the series.

As for the Lightning, the status of the defense is going to keep Coach Cooper up at night. The good news is that it looks like at least two of the injured blue liners will be ready to go for Game 1. Braydon Coburn has been participating fully in practice this week while Andrej Sustr, despite wearing the red no-contact jersey in practice, is hopeful that he’ll be ready by Thursday. Unfortunately, Jason Garrison (who doesn’t have as much playoff experience as I thought - only 8 games) probably won’t return until the middle of the series at the earliest.

Detroit will be looking to exploit the lack of experience on Tampa’s defense with a viscous forecheck. Their offense, like the Lightning, is based on creating offensive chances off of turnovers.  I would expect them to pressure the defense of the Lightning and hope to force them into mistakes.  It will be imperative that Tampa’s forwards don’t break out of the zone to early leaving their teammates without multiple passing options (expect Bobby Taylor to talk about “gap control” at least 156 times during the series….I’m going to miss The Chief).

The other storyline for the Lightning is going to be Ben Bishop’s lack of experience in the playoffs. In fact, people have been talking about that for at least two months now. To me, it’s not that big of a deal.  After all, every goalie that’s ever played in the playoffs has had a “lack of experience” until he’s played his first game. Critics said that Bishop would struggle as a number one goalie because he didn’t have that experience either, and things turned out pretty ok in that regard.  I believe that good goalies will be good no matter their background. If games played in the postseason mattered, the one goalie in this series with actual playoff experience (Jimmy Howard) would be starting.  Bishop will be just fine.

Having Ben Bishop between the pipes is one of the big reasons I’m cautiously optimistic instead of cautiously pessimistic. He managed to make it through the end of the season without hurting himself diving needlessly after a puck. However, he isn’t the only one that’s healthier this time around in the post-season.

Last year, Ondrej Palat played in 3 of the 4 games, but he wasn’t the same Palat that garnered rookie of the year votes. Valtteri Filppula was also banged up a bit. Having those two players at near full strength does so much to round out the roster. Filppula might have the best hands on the team (although Jo Drouin is rising to the challenge) and his ability to set up his teammates gives the Lightning a 3rd line that is just as dangerous as the top two.

While the Triplets have been successful when Palat has missed time this year, they are simply deadly when he is healthy. Despite having all-world goal-scorer Steven Stamkos on the roster, they are the top line on the Lightning. As they go, so does the team.

Special teams will be an interesting sub plot. The Lightning have stumbled around with the extra man all year finishing 14th in the league. For whatever reason (cough..cough.. trouble getting the puck in the zone) they struggle despite the offensive talent they have. The Red Wings, not so much, as they have cruised to a robust 23% success rate with the man advantage.

While less penalties are called in the playoffs it means that each power play has a little more importance. The Lightning have to find a way to at least generate chances when they have the opportunity. I think that the series will be won based on 5-on-5 play (and overtime), but if the Lightning waste their power play chances it could come back to haunt them.

Will any former Tampa Bay Lightning members come back to haunt them in this series?  There are two possibilities - Drew Miller and Kyle Quincy.  Miller is a defensive forward who played with the Lightning for 14 games in 2009-10. He isn’t on the ice to score goals, which, based on last season’s playoffs means he is going to score 4 times against the Lightning (see Weise, Dale)

Wait, you say, Kyle Quincey? He never wore the uniform.  That’s true, but for the briefest of moments he was a member of the Lightning.  Back in 2012 the Lightning weren’t very good. They did have a couple of bright spots. One of them was a hellion on skates named Steve Downie. The Lightning, wanting young Downie to be a success traded him to the Colorado Avalanche for Kyle Quincey. Mr. Yzerman, knowing his old team needed some help on defense, quickly swapped Quincy for a first round pick and something called a Sebastien Piche.  With that first round pick Mr. Yzerman selected a young goaltender from Tyumen, Russia with a pain-in-the-ass name to spell. That man will be backing up Ben Bishop - Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Was this digression included so that I could post a photo of Downie? You betcha! (Photo from nj.com)

That moment in Lightning history is brought to you by the good folks at Argo Tea.  Argo Tea - where bloggers blog and old people argue about the Super Flu (seriously, as I type this four old people behind me are almost ready to fight each other about the flu. I’m scared to turn around)

Quincey has been a steady defensemen for  the Wings averaging about 19 minutes per game and chipping in 18 points this season. While his work won’t show up on the score sheet he will be instrumental in shutting down the Lightning attack. If he can disrupt the passing lanes (the Lightning do love them some cross-ice passes) then their offense will stall and things will get dicey.

After all of this typing what do I think is going to happen?  The high-power offense sputters a bit, but the Triplets end up being too much for the Wings. I say the Lightning win in six games. I’m apparently not alone in predicting a Lightning win, which kind of makes me nervous.  But sometimes you just have to believe that the best team will win.


Top Goal Scorer - Stamkos
Top Point Getter - Johnson
Number of OT games - 2
Games I watch in Real Time - 2
Most Penalty Minutes - Mark Barberio
Dumbest Penalty - Nikita Kucherov
Odd Man Rushes for Detroit - 6
Goals off Odd Man Rushes - 2

Bonus Prediction - there will be no picture as great as this picture.


JediJeff said...

Best prediction: dumbest penalty.

Just the thought of picking out who on the Hawks will do that (Versteeg) made me chuckle.

Justin G. said...

JJ - without a doubt it's Versteeg.