TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Steve Yzerman concedes it feels odd to be facing the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Hall of Fame player and current general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning remains close to the organization he helped win four Stanley Cup championships over nearly three decades as a player and executive in the Motor City.
However there’s no doubt about his allegiance in a first-round Eastern Conference playoff series that begins Thursday night.
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”You kind of saw this coming,” Yzerman said Wednesday, noting that for weeks it looked as if the Lightning and Red Wings – the second- and third-place clubs in the Atlantic Division – might match up.
”It’s probably other teams I’d rather be playing. But I figured at some point in my managerial career if I survived, we probably would face one another.”
The former Red Wings captain played 23 seasons in Detroit, amassing 692 goals and 1,755 points in 1,514 games, while winning Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
He spent another four years in the front office – helping general manager Ken Holland and Jim Devellano evaluate talent and win another NHL title in 2008 – before accepting the challenge of transforming the Lightning into playoff contenders in 2010.
”Obviously I have tremendous respect for the organization from top to bottom. They’ve been one of the elite franchises in professional sports or a long time … so I have great admiration for them,” Yzerman added.
”I expect it to be good hockey. The teams are similar in the way we play the game, similar styles, and it should be entertaining hockey.”
The Lightning, swept by Montreal in the first round of the playoffs a year ago, was the league’s highest-scoring team during the regular season. They also posted franchise bests for victories (50) and points (108), while winning a league-best 32 games at home.
Detroit enters its 24th consecutive playoff appearance an underdog, especially with coach Mike Babcock deciding to go with young Petr Mrazek as his starting goaltender over Jimmy Howard. The Red Wings have lost in the opening round two of the past three years.
Tampa Bay won three of the four meetings between the teams this season.
”I don’t have any concerns, we know who they are,” Babcock said. ”We’re prepared for them. We’re excited to play them. It’s a good opportunity for us and for them. Somebody’s going to win. Playoffs are real simple. They’re short for some teams, they’re long for others. We would like them to be long for us.”
Here are some things to watch for in the first-round series.
GETTING IT RIGHT: Yzerman tinkered with Tampa Bay’s roster after last spring’s playoff disappointment. The GM and coach Jon Cooper think the team is built for success in these playoffs – and beyond. ”I’m pleased with the progress over the course of the season. We’re improving,” Yzerman said. ”Now the playoffs are a completely different story. … It’s a higher level of hockey, greater demands on the players physically and mentally. We played four games last year. We weren’t able to win a game, but it was a valuable experience for us. Let’s see if we can take another step forward this year.”
INEXPERIENCED GOALIE: Mrazek, 23, played well enough down the stretch to win to convince Babcock that the Red Wings will be better with him making his NHL playoff debut instead of starting Howard, who has appeared in 45 playoff games. Mrazek appeared in 29 games this season, finishing with a 2.38 goals-against average and .918 save percentage. That’s compared to 2.44 and .910 in 53 games for Howard, who signed a six-year, $31.8 million contract extension two years ago.
SOMETHING TO PROVE, TOO: Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop set team and personal bests for wins with a 40-13-5 record, 2.32 GAA and .916 save percentage. But he, too, lacks playoff experience. After helping the Lightning reach the playoffs a year ago, he missed the team’s opening-round loss to the Canadiens because of an injury.
”He’s played in a lot of big games. Has he played with the bright lights of the Stanley Cup playoffs? He has not,” Cooper said. ”At some points, you’ve got to get your first one. He’s been a rock for us for two years. We wouldn’t want anybody else back there than him.”
HIGH-SCORING DUO: The Lightning averaged an NHL-high 3.16 goals per game. Steven Stamkos led the high-octane offense with 43 goals and 72 points. Tyler Johnson was second on the team with 29 goals, while matching Stamkos with 72 points.
RICH TRADITION: While the Lightning offense figures to be a tough matchup for Mrazek, Tampa Bay insists it won’t take anything for granted against a franchise that’s in the playoffs for the 24th consecutive season. ”There’s no fluke there. They play the right way,” Stamkos said. ”They know how to win at this time of year. We need to play smart.”