Heading into the Series
This series will feature two teams trending in opposite directions. The Detroit Red Wings have lost six of their last seven outings. The Tampa Bay Lightning have won five of their last six matchups. Both teams are a bit banged up, with each of the two squads playing without their captains due to injury. The Red Wings have been eliminated from playoff contention already, so this series means more to a Lightning team that is looking up at the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes in the Central Division standings. Look for Tampa Bay to play an inspired brand of hockey, as the four points available in this series could play a vital role in playoff seeding. What exactly do the positional matchups this weekend look like after the injuries? We will evaluate that below.
Tampa Bay Offense
So the Tampa Bay offense should be suffering due to missing both Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos right? Well, while they do miss the two, all the team has done in their absence is see the depth take a step forward. Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, and Victor Hedman are all in the top 34 players in the league in points. Point’s 22 goals places him 16th amongst all skaters. The team’s tremendous depth is proven by ranking fourth in the league in goals for/games played (GF/GP) all while missing their best scorer. Success on the power play can be pointed to as a source of their offense, as they boast the fifth best unit in the league. Scoring on just under 25% of their attempts, any penalties the Red Wings take will lead to stressful moments. The offense of Tampa Bay will be a challenge in this weekend series.
To say the Red Wings offense has been stagnant lately is an understatement. They have scored just two goals in their last three games. Their 2.21 GF/GP has them looking down at just the Anaheim Ducks in that category. Injuries are not helping the late season push, as injuries to Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin, Robby Fabbri, and Bobby Ryan take away 2/3 of what would be their top six forwards. The offensive woes continue with the man-advantage with the team converting under 11% of the time. Jakub Vrana has been a bright spot on offense. Scoring seven points in the seven games he has played while donning the winged-wheel has shown his potential. With all of the injuries to this unit, Vrana in addition to the young depth on this team will need to play beyond their years.
Tampa Bay Defense
The Lightning defensive unit is large enough to be imposing in their own zone, while being fleet of foot enought to contribute offensively. Victor Hedman may be the best defenseman in the world, and has a great supporting cast. The addition of David Savard at the trade deadline was a boost to this core. He is averaging north of 21 minutes of ice time each night since his arrival. As expected, this all bodes very well for the Tampa Bay penalty kill that finds itself killing penalties at the eighth strongest rate in the league. Goals will be tough to come by both at even strength and on the power play for the Red Wings this weekend.
As expected, this group has taken a step back after a trade deadline that saw starters Patrik Nemeth and John Merrill get moved. Filip Hronek continues to be a workhorse, and Marc Staal continues to be serviceable. Dennis Cholowski and Gustav Lindstrom are being given a chance to show the club what they can bring to the table. The advanced statistics for Lindstrom show him having a positive impact on the power play. Cholowski has been a net neutral while playing five on five (5v5). There is no doubt that this extended look will play a factor when considering which defensemen to protect during the upcoming expansion draft. This weekend will be a big test for this unit. They will be facing a top powerplay unit, and to compete, the penalty kill will have to perform better than its 22nd ranking. It will be interesting to see who, if anyone rises to the top this weekend.
Tampa Bay Goaltending
With the upcoming series being a weekend back-to-back, there is a good chance that the Red Wings will see both Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney. The Lightning get quite a different goaltending result when each are in net, as Vasilevskiy leads the league with 23.5 goals saved above average (GSAA) and .929 save percentage (SV%). The dropoff to McElhinney is noticeable, as his -9.1 GSAA is 60th in the league, and his SV% of .872 places him 84th in the National Hockey League. Detroit will have to get Vasilevskiy moving to get a puck by him. Plays that get him moving side to side with quick passes, will be important to find the back of the net this weekend.
Jonathan Bernier has not played as consistently as he did before his last injury. Even considering this, he is still the best player for the Red Wings when he is on the ice. Thomas Greiss has bounced back from his early season struggles as well. Early in the year, Greiss was hovering right around where McElhinney is in both GSAA and SV%. Fast forward to now, and there are only 34 goalies with a better GSAA than Greiss. That sounds like a lot. However, considering that he has had to correct the statistics he has generated through the first half of the season to climb this high, his play cannot be understated. The duo is rounding out to be the tandem that Yzerman had hoped for when signing Greiss this offseason. As a result they are far and away the best unit for the Red Wings.
The Red Wings will not have the benefit of being overlooked in this series. The four points available in this series are too valuable to the Lightning. Detroit’s injuries at this point will keep them from fielding a team that can compete. Tampa will dominate play with players at each level that are tops in the league. My prediction for the series is that the Lightning will win Vasilevskiy’s start 4-1. If he plays both games, than I could see one of them leading to a route. If McElhinney gets a game, I believe there is a closer contest that will see itself end in a 4-3 game. Between injuries, and the level of the competition, I believe that the Red Wings slide continues.