Neither the Tampa Bay Lightning nor the Detroit Red Wings have ever been eliminated in the first round of the postseason in two consecutive years. Last year, both endured an early exit with the Lightning on the wrong end of a sweep to Montreal, and Detroit managing one victory but falling in five games to Boston.
But as both sides wrap up their opening series with Wednesday night’s Game 7 at Amalie Arena, one is guaranteed to wind up with a glaring blemish in their history. It’s the first Game 7 for the Lightning since 2011 when they knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, but fell to the Boston Bruins in the conference finals.
The Red Wings’ Game 7 history is a little more recent. In 2013, Detroit defeated the Anaheim Ducks in the final game of the first round only to lose to the eventual-champion Chicago Blackhawks in the second round.
The Lightning, who entered the series as the favorite after taking all three of the four regular season meetings with Detroit, have lost significant ground at home during the series. Tampa Bay dropped Games 1 and 5 on their home ice and faced a 3-2 deficit before overpowering Detroit 5-2 in Game 6 to force the final matchup of the series.
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper credited his team with showing a great resiliency at the best possible time.
"There was a calm about us, like we were determined," Cooper told reporters after Game 6. "Our structure was phenomenal tonight. I don't know if we played as good a road game all year as we played tonight."
Owning the NHL’s highest-scoring offense in the regular season, the Lightning’s attack roared to life in Game 6 with center Tyler Johnson scoring twice and right wing Nikita Kucherov assisting three of the squad’s five goals.
Johnson leads Tampa Bay with seven points (six goals) in the series, and Kucherov’s next up with four points, all of which have come from assists. Regular season points and scoring leader Steven Samkos has yet to find his offensive rhythm in the series though, totaling three points all off assists after netting 43 goals while Tampa Bay race to third place in the Eastern Conference.
But the Lightning’s inconsistent offense can also be contributed to the stellar play of Red Wings rookie goalie Petr Mrazek. Tallying two shutouts in his first postseason stint, Mrazel’s put up a .924 save percentage and is averaging 34 saves a game.
"He's stopping the puck; it's pretty simple," Red Wings left wing and captain Henrik Zetterberg said to MLive.com. "Mrazek has been good for us. We've seen it in the regular season and he's kept it going in the postseason. He plays with a lot of confidence and he (exudes) confidence."
As for who plays in front of Mrazek in Game 7, that might be up to the NHL’s Department of Player Safety and its possible ruling on Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall for his huge hit on Kucherov in the second period of Game 6.
Kronwall, who has recorded two assists but a plus-minus of minus-1 for the series, appeared to have left his feet and hit Kucherov in the head with his forearm. A suspension for the crucial game isn’t guaranteed, but it's expected to come down later Tuesday.
The first-line defenseman is typically paired with Jonathan Ericsson, but should a suspension come down Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock might have to shift Dan DeKeyser or Kyle Quincey up from the second line, which also figures to disrupt Brendan Smith and Marek Zidlicky on the third.
Offensively Detroit will look for the same steady production from its top line scorers. The Red Wings have relied on veteran center Pavel Datsyuk and his five points, three goals and two assists, along with left wing Tomas Tatar’s three goals and two apiece from center Riley Sheahan and right wing Luke Glendening.
Start Time: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC Sports Network
Live Online: A live stream is available at NBC Live Extra here.
Betting Odds: Tampa Bay -175
Prediction: Tampa Bay over Detroit, 3-2