TAMPA, Fla. — They prepare to enter the scene of an old crime, the same round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that served to light a fire under their skates the past six months.
They approach the Eastern Conference quarterfinals once more, this time carrying scars from a disappointing sweep last year, when bright-eyed wonder ended with a dark thud.
On Thursday, the Tampa Bay Lightning will begin another postseason chase, with full understanding that they’re capable of more than the inexperienced group that bowed out after four games against the Montreal Canadiens last year. A similar result would cut to their heart.
Certainly, this matchup against the Detroit Red Wings feels different. Ben Bishop is healthy. Steven Stamkos is a year older and wiser. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov have made gains. Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman proved to be savvy signings.
To no surprise, the Lightning have talked up their opponent, a familiar Atlantic Division foe. But they’re the better team entering this series. They should strive to show it.
"They’re another team that every year, they’re in the mix," Stamkos said of the Red Wings. "They’ve got a great bunch of veteran guys, some young skill guys, very well-coached."
"Obviously, they’re a really good team," Bishop said. "They have a lot of good players who have been there, done that."
Thing is, the Lightning have been there, done that as well. It’s hard to understate how important the brief taste of postseason life was for this franchise last year. The experience proved to be a baptism by fire, but that flame burned in the back of Tampa Bay’s collective mind throughout the most recent regular season. The Lightning went 50-24-8 and earned 108 points preparing for the chance to tackle this round again.
So it doesn’t matter that Tampa Bay faces Detroit in this round. It wouldn’t have mattered if the Lightning had been paired against the Ottawa Senators or Pittsburgh Penguins or someone else. In many ways, coach Jon Cooper’s team is chasing ghosts. The Lightning are chasing the chance to prove their growth on the ice, on hockey’s largest stage, in the days when larger stars are created and legacies are defined.
Sure, the Lightning have tipped their cap to the Red Wings. Despite Tampa Bay owning Detroit of late, some games have been competitive. The Lightning understand regular-season success against a foe doesn’t equate to a postseason cakewalk. The sweep by Montreal last year proved as much.
"They’re a really, really good team," Brian Boyle said. "They’re somebody that (means) it’s going to be a really tough series. We’ve got to take care of business at home."
They must take care of business for a variety of reasons: To prolong the franchise’s recent momentum, to validate regular-season gains, to prove to themselves that they were ready to make good on business left undone a year ago. This series will be a mental test as much as a physical one.
An old obstacle is here again. This time, the Lightning should strive for a different ending.
Nov. 9: Tampa Bay 4, Detroit 3 (shootout)
Stamkos had two goals and Ryan Callahan posted two assists as Tampa Bay held on after Detroit forced overtime with the third period’s lone score. At one point, the Lightning raced to a 3-1 lead. Callahan earned the only shootout goal against goaltender Jimmy Howard.
Jan. 29: Tampa Bay 5, Detroit 1
Tampa Bay scored four consecutive goals after Detroit tied the score at one midway through the second period. Cedric Paquette had a hat trick, and Bishop posted 27 saves. Stamkos and Mark Barberio also tallied goals for the Lightning. The result marked Tampa Bay’s ninth consecutive home victory.
March 20: Tampa Bay 3, Detroit 1
Tampa Bay received third-period goals from Alex Killorn and Stamkos to break a one-all tie after the second period. Victor Hedman added two assists for the Lightning. Bishop had 30 saves.
Detroit benefitted from 23 saves by Petr Mrazek in the shutout. The Red Wings broke open the game with three goals in the second period. Lightning defenseman Jason Garrison sustained an upper-body injury in the first period after he was smashed into the boards by Justin Abdelkader.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
0: Times the Lightning and Red Wings have met in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Detroit is making its 24th consecutive playoff appearance. Tampa Bay will appear in the postseason for the second consecutive season (eighth time overall).
7-2-0: Record for the Lightning against the Red Wings throughout the past two seasons. Detroit’s lone victories in the span came on March 30, 2014 (a 3-2 score) and March 28, 2015 (a 4-0 score).
27: Seasons that Steve Yzerman, the Lightning’s vice president and general manager, spent with the Red Wings as a player and as part of Detroit’s management. Yzerman won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings as either a player or a member of their management.
1. Bishop’s playoff inexperience.
Everyone knows how important the goaltender will be to the Lightning’s postseason hopes. But how will he handle this test? He has never appeared in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a career that has spanned parts of six NHL seasons. He posted a career-high 40 victories in the most recent regular season with a 2.32 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. But Tampa Bay needs him to turn the page quickly.
2. The Lightning’s improving health situation.
Tampa Bay received positive news that defenseman Braydon Coburn is questionable to probable to return for Game 1. Defenseman Andrej Sustr is hopeful to return for the start of the series as well. Same with Killorn, a center. The once-banged-up Bolts don’t appear as hobbled anymore.
3. Tampa Bay’s ambition to advance past the first round.
The Lightning’s quick exit in the playoffs last season stands as an unwanted memory for the players who lived it. Cooper spoke about his dressing room as having the "eye of the tiger" after Tampa Bay’s shootout victory over the Boston Bruins in the regular-season finale. It will be interesting to see how the Lightning manages this postseason appearance compared to the brief series with the Canadiens. Expect a more mature team. Expect a group that won’t allow the moment to overwhelm.
THE LIGHTNING WILL ADVANCE IF …
1. Bishop plays well.
He’s a career 7-2-0 with a .936 save percentage and a 1.68 goals-against average in 10 games against the Red Wings. Detroit got the best of him by scoring three goals on 22 shots in a 4-0 victory on March 28 at Joe Louis Arena. Still, history shows that Big Ben welcomes the chance to play the Red Wings. On paper, this is a favorable matchup for him. If he performs to his potential, the Lightning should find success in this series.
2. They take advantage of the Red Wings’ uncertain goaltending situation.
Coach Mike Babcock has been less than ecstatic with his choices in net of late, and Mrazek was deemed as the best option to start Game 1. Mrazek is 16-9-2 with a 2.38 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage this season. Howard, meanwhile, has posted a 23-13-11 mark with a 2.44 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage. Both appear vulnerable, and the Lightning can pull away if they exploit an apparent weakness.
3. They play their game.
The Lightning, plain and simple, are the better team. The regular-season results proved as much, and if Tampa Bay plays to its capabilities, this series should be over in five or six games. There will be no secrets between these familiar division opponents. In that way, it’s difficult seeing the results here deviating from the norm, barring a major injury to Bishop or one of the Lightning’s top goal-scoring threats. Tampa Bay enters as the clear favorite.
A different year, different expectations. Unlike last season, it’s not good enough for the Lightning just to reach the playoffs. Winning this series should be the mission, and given their gains throughout the regular season, anything less than advancement from here would be deemed a disappointment.
Expect Tampa Bay to approach this series with more maturity than what was seen in Montreal’s sweep last year. As long as the Lightning stay healthy, it’s hard to see the Red Wings overcoming a rival who has had their number recently. Tampa Bay, wiser and more seasoned, is prepared to take another step.