USATSI_9206042_154158418_lowresIt’s playoff time again, which means it’s also time for our Breaking It Down series. That’s where I – and I alone – take a look at the post-season matchups and provide a snapshot of the action to come. We’ll kick things off in the Eastern Conference with the Tampa Bay Lightning taking on the Detroit Red Wings. Game One of that series goes Wednesday night.

This is a rematch from last spring’s first round matchup, only the denizens of the Motor City have to be hoping for a better result. Last year, Detroit swung out to a 3-2 series lead in the best-of-seven before the Lightning piled them up in the last two games and outscored them seven goals to two. Tampa took the ball and ran, charging all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

But there are issues with the Lightning this season, starting with Steven Stamkos. As you know, he’s out one to three months after surgery to remove a blood clot. That’s not good. The 26-year-old from Markham put up 64 points in 77 games, including 36 goals. 14 of his goals came on the power play and eight were game-winners.

Goalies

The Petr Mrazek/Jimmy Howard tandem isn’t the most confidence-inducing duo in the NHL right now and that could spell trouble for the Red Wings. Mrazek went 27-16-6 with a 2.33 goals against average and a .921 save percentage, while Howard was 14-14-5 with a 2.80 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. Howard played the last five games of the season and helped vault his club into the playoffs and it looks like he’ll start in the playoffs, with Mrazek ready to jump in when the chips are down.

Tampa, on the other hand, should have every confidence in their netminding. Ben Bishop led all goalies with a 2.06 goals against average and found himself in the top three with a .926 save percentage. He set a team record with six shutouts this season and lost 12 games in which he allowed two goals of fewer, which confirms that he can close the door and give his club a chance to win. Andrei Vasilevskiy should be steady in relief.

Defencemen

Along with Stamkos, the Lightning are going to have to adjust to life without blueliner Anton Stralman. He’s out with a fractured left fibula and he’ll be missed. Stralman logged big minutes and drove the team’s possession numbers. Luckily, Victor Hedman can and will pick up the slack. Matt Carle, too, should be able to step up and prove that he’s worth the six-year contract he inked in 2012.

The Red Wings don’t have a Stralman problem because they don’t have a Stralman. Plainly put, the defensive group in Detroit is less than remarkable. Danny DeKeyser is probably the top guy and he’ll log some serious minutes. More will be expected out of Mike Green and Kyle Quincey will bang and crash in the corners. Niklas Kronwall is still capable of logging 20 or so minutes a game and he’ll bring his experienced edge to the series.

Forwards

The Detroit Red Wings have seemingly always threatened offensively, but the picture’s a little different now. While there are some young guns like Dylan Larkin, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar to bulge the twine, a lot will be expected out of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The latter is expected to leave for Russia following this season, so his heart may or may not be in it. Zetterberg led the team in scoring and may be the best bet for offensive reliability and leadership prowess.

Life without Stamkos isn’t ideal for the Lightning, but it is bearable thanks to their depth at the forward position. The Triplets line will return, with Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov set to go. Kucherov had 30 goals this season and a total of 66 points, so he’s a solid pick. And then there’s Jonathan Drouin, who was called up to fill in for Stamkos. He could see some serious minutes and could turn this year’s post-season into a proving ground of sorts. What a story that would be.

Diagnosis

Tampa Bay has the edge in just about every department in this series and that’s going to be a problem for Detroit. The Red Wings have that much-discussed experience factor, but there’s only so much that can accomplish when the other parts just don’t match up. The Lightning have one of the best goaltending tandems in the Eastern Conference, they have a dangerous group of forwards even without Stamkos and they’ve been tightening up defensively under head coach Jon Cooper.

If Tampa sticks to the system and lets the goaltenders see the puck, they’ll turn the screws on the haggard Red Wings until there’s nothing left. And if the Triplets line gets rolling, this could be a very, very short series and a very painful one for Datsyuk and the team he’s about to leave.

With these factors in mind, I can safely stand by a prediction of Tampa Bay in four games.

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