Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Tampa Vs. Detroit: Round Two - Some Playoff Thoughts

That time has come.  Most of the snow is gone, baseball is on the T.V. and the best playoffs in sports is about to get underway.  For the third year in a row, the Tampa Bay Lightning have made it to the second season.  They somehow survived six months of regular season play (by the way, my favorite line in A Few Good Men is Tom Cruise saying, “Six months. It’s nothing. It’s a HOCKEY season!” to Sgt. Dawson)* .  Six months of injuries, contract squabbles, suspensions and slightly underwhelming offense have lead the Lightning exactly where they were last year - hosting a first-round playoff series against the Red Wings.

The beauty of the playoffs is that, for the 16 teams that make it, the slate is clear.  Records don’t matter.  Previous play doesn’t matter.  The Washington Capitals and their 120 points have to win the same amount of games (16) as the Red Wings and their 93 points to get to the promised land.  Home ice advantage is big in Game 1 and Game 7, that’s why it’s worth winning games in regulation during the regular season, but those middle five games are up in the air.

So what are the Tampa Bay Lightning’s chance in the playoffs?  Decidedly middle of the pack.  Vegas Insider has them at 18/1 which is 10th out of the 16 teams (Caps are the favorites at 7/2).  On paper that seems about right.  If the team was 100% injury-free I could see them closer to 8/1 or 9/1.  Alas they are not injury free.  For the first round they will be without Steven Stamkos  Anton Stralman and Mattias Ohlund for sure.  They may or may not have Tyler Johnson while Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman will probably start at less than optimal condition.

That being said.  I kind of like their chances.  If I was, or had a buddy in Vegas, I would slap down a $20 on them at 18/1. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important than a good goaltender in the playoffs.  A hot goalie can take a team the distance and a struggling goalie can sink even the best playoff teams (see any non-Cup winning Penguins playoff team).  Ben Bishop, healthy and rested, can put the team on his back and get them back to the finals.

Why yes, yes he will have to bend over backwards over to help them win. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

He is at worst the third best goaltender in the Eastern Conference.  Braden Holtby has had a heck of a season but a losing record in the playoffs. Henrik Lundqvist probably has the unofficial title of best current goaltender to not have won the Cup, but hasn’t been as invincible as he normally is.  The Lightning won’t have to worry about either one of them until the conference finals and I’ll take Bishop in a 7 game series over Roberto Luongo, Steve Mason, and whoever the Penguins and Islanders have filling the net (Thomas Greiss and Jeff Zatkoff, come on down!)

As much as losing Tyler Johnson in the Finals last year hurt the team, the fact that Bishop could barely stand after making a save was the biggest reason they didn’t get past Game 6.  In order to advance you need a goalie that can steal a game or three in a series.  Based on his season this year, Bishop is that guy.

Of course, the one thing he can’t do is score goals.  The Lighting are going to have to rely on the likes of Jonathan Marchessault, Erik Condra and Brian Boyle for offense way to much for my liking.  Look for their opponents to shut down the Triplets line at every opportunity.  That line will be drawing the top defensive pairing all playoffs long.

Bonus Caption Prediction - Alex Killorn scores at least 2 big goals

So does Coach Cooper keep them together or shift Kucherov onto a line with Jonathan Drouin in hopes of spreading out the coverage a bit?  Well, knowing him he will try both approaches, several times. Last year it took the Lightning a few games to get used to playoff hockey - this year it seems they’ve been playing it since day one.  They’ve been more of a grind it out team then the high-flying offense we aw a year ago.  While they haven’t totally broke off their love affair with the pretty goal, they have done much better at focusing on getting the puck on the net and scoring ugly goals (Brian Boyle on the power play as exhibit number one).

Before the season started I had the Lightning as a team that would bow out in the second round of the playoffs.  I still feel that way. I do think they are better than the Red Wings, mainly because of Bishop.  If they get to the second round, who knows, maybe Stamkos is back. The nice thing about a blood clot (if there can be such a thing) is that it isn’t an injury that the other team can focus on (unless they put blood thickeners in his Gatorade).

Even with Stamkos out I’m way more nervous about the defense than I am the offense.  The thought of Dylan Larkin turning Matt Carle into a pretzel isn’t quite keeping me up at night, but it’s not a soothing cup of warm milk either. If Hedman is indeed healthy then Coach Cooper needs to run him into the ice Duncan Keith-style (without the post-whistle stick work).

Cooper likes to balance things out and keep Hedman and Stralman at a nice even 20-ish minutes a game.  That’s ok for the regular season, but in the playoffs you need your horses on the ice as much as possible and your Matt Carle’s playing a nice 12 minutes or so a game.  The Big Swede is 25-years-old, one of the best defensemen in the league and a potential game changer.  While he still has the occasional boneheaded play, he is still the best skating, puck-handling blue liner on the team.  Hedman at 70% is better than Carle at 110%.

However, it shouldn’t be all on Hedman’s shoulders.  Jason Garrison and Braydon Coburn are going to have to step up their production as well. Coburn scored 10 points in 80 games this season. That’s not good.  That’s not good at all. We all heaped a tremendous amount of shit on Carle this season and he ended up with 9 points in 16 less games.  I know Coburn isn’t the 20 goal scorer he once was with the Flyers and he is one of the few Lightning players that knows how to throw a check, but he’s got to chip in more.

Andrej Sustr and Nikita Nesterov need to keep doing what they do.  Just contribute, don’t make mistakes and fire off the occasional shot.  It will be interesting to see how Sustr plays in the postseason.  He ended up with 21 points on the season by picking his spots to join in the rush.  Will he continue to be aggressive or will he be a little more conservative since more is on the line? Ah the fun of the playoffs!

So I guess I’m picking the Lightning to win in six.  Bishop picks up two shutouts (including a 1-0 double overtime win).

Some other predictions:

By the time the playoff dust settles Jonathan Drouin scores more points in the playoffs than he did in the regular season.  He solidifies himself as a member of the organization and this weird, wacky winter is forgotten.

Jonathan Marchessault wins the Nikita Kucherov Award for the most “Why is Cooper benching him again!!!!” Tweets generated.  (The award went to Drouin in 2015).

The “Stamkos is skating/will he play?” storyline starts around Game 4.

Vlad Namestnikov plays with no less than 7 different linemates in five games.

Heart attacks in the Tampa Bay Area increase by 264% the at the exact moment Carle and Nesterov end up on the ice together against the Larkin/ Henrik Zetterberg/ Justin Abdelkader line.

Darren Helm and Tomas Jurco will score an inordinate amount of goals against the Lightning.

The reason people want to shoot Pierre McGuire this year is his harping on Pavel Datsyuk going back to Russia after this season.

My boss complains about my playoff beard by Game 3.

Playoff Beard 2011 (yes I was unemployed at the time. Why do you ask?)

The other series:

Panthers over the Islanders in five
Washington over Philadelphia in four
Penguins over Rangers in seven

Dallas over Minnesota in five
Blues over Blackhawks in seven (upset special!)
Anaheim over Nashville in six
Kings over Sharks in seven (best series).

Feel free to do what everyone in my family does and bet the exact opposite and collect your winnings.

*That’s a lie.  My actual favorite line is the “You’re a lousy f*ckin’ softball player, Jack”.

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