Tampa Bay Lightning (2nd seed, Atlantic Division) versus Detroit Red Wings (3rd seed, Atlantic Division)
The Lightning and Red Wings went seven games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals last year and it wasn't a stretch to picture Detroit winning the series. The Red Wings opened up a 1-0 series lead. Then a 2-1 series lead. Then a 3-2 series lead. But when it came time to actually eliminate the Lightning, Detroit fell just short, losing 2-0 in Game 7. The tight victory helped propel the Lightning to the Stanley Cup finals. As for Detroit, it was a disappointingly early exit. It was a great series and the sequel should be too, with completely different storylines. The Lightning are without their captain Steven Stamkos. The Red Wings might be witnessing the final NHL games of star center Pavel Datsyuk, who wants to return to Russia to conclude his playing career. The series also pits two close friends in coaches Jon Cooper and Jeff Blashill against each other. It makes for intrigue on and off the ice.
How they win
Tampa: First of all, they need to stay healthy enough to ice a team. So, the route to survival will be through the emergence of contributors who are getting opportunity in light of the injuries. With Stamkos out, the Lightning will need to lean on Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin and Alex Killorn to have big moments while others heal. The Lightning are a deep team. There aren't many teams that can tap into their AHL roster and pluck a player as talented as Drouin to bring offense to the lineup, and he's been on a goal-scoring binge lately in the AHL and NHL. The positive is that they're facing a Red Wings team that has struggled to score, averaging 2.55 goals per game. Tampa was stingy in the goals-against department, fifth in the NHL by allowing just 2.38 goals per game, and they have a strong penalty kill. The Lightning can survive if they turn this it into a tight, defensive series and lean on goalie Ben Bishop to make the saves he's made all season long.
Detroit: For a team that squeaked into the postseason, this is actually a favorable matchup simply because of the injuries to Tampa. At full strength, the Lightning are heavy favorites against Detroit. They're not at full strength, not even close. This is a huge opportunity for the Red Wings and this is a winnable series if they can expose Tampa's injuries with some of their forward depth. Detroit has young legs and depth up front in Dylan Larkin, Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar, Luke Glendening and Andreas Athanasiou. It'll be crucial to get them skating and confident to try to wear down a thinning Lightning team. Coach Jeff Blashill will also lean heavily on vets Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and the more they can avoid Victor Hedman, the better, since the Lightning defense thins out after him. There are potential matchups for Blashill to take advantage of, especially when the series shifts to Detroit and he gets last change.
How they lose
Tampa: They get overwhelmed with injuries. Nobody got crushed harder by injuries down the stretch than the Lightning. Stamkos is out after having surgery to remove a blood clot. The surgery was April 4, and his timeline was one to three months. That's a huge blow. The Red Wings held Stamkos without a goal in the first round last year and yet the Lightning survived. So, if his were the only injury, it might be reasonable. It's not. Defenseman Anton Stralman will miss the series after fracturing his leg on March 25. Hedman and Kucherov were both held out of the season finale to buy time for lingering injuries that aren't expected to prevent them from playing in Game 1. And Tyler Johnson crashed hard into the boards against the Montreal Canadiens in the season finale and missed the remainder of the game. The Lightning might lose this series simply because too many key players are either out or banged up. Part of surviving in the playoffs is luck and the Lightning appear to have a critical shortage in that department.
Detroit: If they lose, there's a really good chance it's because there was a gap in performance by the goalies. Detroit was at its best when Petr Mrazek was stealing close games early in the season. He also covered up for a lot of the Red Wings' shortcomings. Mrazek struggled down the stretch and had an .899 save percentage after the All-Star break in 19 starts, losing his job to Jimmy Howard. Howard started the huge finale against the New York Rangers and is the favorite to get the first crack at the Lightning. In five games down the stretch in April, Howard had a .916 save percentage. Detroit will need him closer to his career playoff save percentage of .919 to advance in what should be a tight, low-scoring series.
Detroit controlled 53.2 percent of the even-strength shot attempts as a team since March 1, according to war-on-ice.com. That's sixth overall during that stretch and a strong indicator of postseason success. The Red Wings had an even-strength goal differential of minus-14 in that stretch in large part because their goalies had an even-strength save percentage of .900 in that stretch, worst in the league.
Tampa: Here's the big edge for the Lightning and it's a notable one: Bishop was outstanding this season. Only Brian Elliott had a better save percentage than Bishop's .926 among goalies who played at least 40 games. Bishop will be a Vezina finalist and had a .922 save percentage against the Red Wings in the first round last season, including a shutout in Game 7. Howard won big games down the stretch but finished with a save percentage of .906 this season. If the Lightning advance, it's because Bishop had a big series and outplayed the Red Wings goalies.
Detroit: There's a temptation to put Larkin in this spot since he's going to come in flying with this being his first postseason, but this series could be the farewell to the NHL for Datsyuk. So much of the focus will be on him, and the Red Wings will need a little more magic from Datsyuk to advance. He had three goals against the Lightning in the first round last year and Detroit will need at least that again this year. According to his agent, Dan Milstein, he enters this playoff series healthy and motivated. "Health is definitely not a problem. He's super-excited. He's extremely concentrated," Milstein said. "He wants to win ... he owes it to the team and most importantly, he owes it to the fans."
Two weeks ago, this would have been an easy one. The Lightning are a Stanley Cup-caliber team and the Red Wings are a team in transition. But factoring in the Lightning's health issues and the Red Wings' emotional aspiration to make one more run for Datsyuk, the pendulum swings enough in Detroit's direction to make this a close series. Tampa has home ice advantage and an sizable edge in goal, though. Lightning in 7.