Lightning, battling injuries, are good match for Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — The stretch drive was an even bigger challenge for the Red Wings this year than the past few seasons, and they backed into the playoffs because the Bruins played even more poorly than they did late in the year.

Not the best scenario for entering the playoff against the defending Eastern Conference champions, the Lightning, a team with a comparatively young roster and lots of jump that seems primed for even better seasons ahead.

Certainly, the Lightning would dearly love to avenge their loss in the Stanley Cup final 10 months ago, to the Blackhawks. That kind of motivation can help produce champions.

So it is a bit of a surprise the Wings have a decent shot at defeating them and playing in their first second round of the playoffs since 2013.

Injuries and illness have cut sharply into the Lightning’s roster. Major players will remain off the ice for Tampa Bay during the series between two teams that split the regular season series, with both clubs winning at home.

As unevenly as the Red Wings performed down the stretch, it is a bit hard to believe they have a shot in the first round.

But the fact of the matter is, they have a pretty good one.

If they can manage to string together a few of their better performances, as they did against the Wild, Maple Leafs and Flyers in succession April 1-6, the Wings’ first victory in a playoff round in three seasons is a possibility.

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Anton Stralman’s plus-16 rating, nine goals and 25 assists demonstrated the defenseman’s fine defensive and offensive play along the blue line before he suffered a broken leg March 25 in a slew-footing incident directly in front of his net against the Islanders.

Stralman’s 22 minutes on the top defensive pairing are hard to replace, and he is likely to miss at least another month.

The Lightning is 3-5 without him.

Steven Stamkos, who leads the Lightning with 36 goals, had surgery Monday to treat a blood clot near his right collarbone. The surgery was successful, general manager Steve Yzerman said.

But Stamkos is likely out for one to three months, a timetable that is expected to be firmed up in a few weeks.

Stamkos missed the last five games of the season, and the Lightning went 2-3.

In 48 playoff games, Stamkos scored 15 goals and assisted on 20.

“The one thing we can’t do is sit here and say our two big guns are out and now our season is over,” Jon Cooper, the Lightning’s coach, told The Tampa Bay Times last week.

“We’ve come way too far to have anything like that try and get in our mindset. It stings. It hurts. It is clearly not ideal. But we’ve got to be pros.”

When he announced the results of the surgery, Yzerman said the team would simply have to play through the misfortune.

“Every team is dealing with something and that’s part of what makes it difficult to win championships,” Yzerman said. “For us it’s an opportunity for other players and something we’re going to have to rally around and do our best to survive, until we start getting guys back.”

In the last game of the season Saturday against the Canadiens, the Lightning lost speedy forward Tyler Johnson. Yzerman said Sunday Johnson is day-to-day, and might return for the first game.

Johnson scored 13 goals and assisted on 10 in 26 playoff games last season. Against the Red Wings in their seven game series, Johnson had six goals and an assist.

With four minutes left in the first period against the Canadiens Saturday, Greg Pateryn shoved Johnson toward the boards and the Lightning forward appeared to catch a skate blade on the ice.

He tumbled headlong, awkwardly into the boards and had to be helped off.

Pateryn got 15 minutes in penalties but no further discipline from the league.

“If we were in a playoff game, he wouldn’t come back,” Cooper said, of Johnson not returning to the final game of the season. “I’m not sure how this is going to end up with Johnny, how hurt he is... That wasn’t good.”

Forward Ryan Callahan (73GP, 10G, 18A) missed three games at the end of the season with a lower body injury and is considered “day to day.”

But Callahan has not skated.

Blashill: 'Let’s get ready to beat Tampa'

Defenseman Victor Hedman missed the last three games of the season with an upper body injury.

But Hedman did skate Saturday and is likely to play in the first game against the Red Wings.

“You want to be 100 percent, you don’t to risk too much before the playoffs start,” Hedman said. “That’s the decision made. Look forward to Wednesday.”

Players missing from the lineup does not always result in success for opponents.

The Red Wings skated against a depleted, watered-down lineup for the Rangers Saturday afternoon and lost, struggling at times.

They must still provide their better performances against the Lightning, and inconsistency has hampered the Wings throughout the season.

But clearly their odds are better against a Lightning lineup that, after struggling for much of the season with injuries, ended on an unhealthy note.

“I still think we’ve got another level,” Jeff Blashill said after the game Saturday.

“One thing I know for sure about playoffs is it’s a new year. Everybody starts 0-0 and everybody’s so tight in the NHL, let’s see what happens in Game 1 and you go from there. Confidence can be gained as you go through the playoffs

“We know we’ve got a great opponent in Tampa,” Blashill said.

“Obviously, everybody’s real familiar with them. We’re going to focus on doing everything we can to play the very best hockey we can.”