Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning-Wings: A playoff series that packs a wallop (w/video)

TAMPA — Tell you one thing. This is going to be a fun series.

It's going to be nasty. It's going to be ugly. It's going to be a blast.

And it's going to be long. Six games, at least. Maybe seven if Wednesday's Game 1 back-alley brawl is any indication.

"There is so much passion and adrenaline going through everybody," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Early in the series, everybody is ready and is jacked up."

The Lightning and Red Wings might not be as good as they were a year ago when they slugged it out for seven topsy-turvy games, but they are as evenly matched as ever.

Typically, it takes two or three games before a series has enough animosity and pent-up frustration to boil over into a steel-caged match. Usually, it takes a couple of games before the sides get sick enough of each other that a sideways glance is reason enough to sock someone in the nose with a smelly glove.

"There's a lot of familiarity with them," said Alex Killorn, who notched the winning goal midway through the third period of Tampa Bay's 3-2 victory.

"Usually we start off kind of slow in these playoff series."

Not this year. The Lightning and Red Wings have fast-forwarded through all the preliminaries and moved straight to the main event, right to the juicy stuff. They have picked up right where they left off last spring.

Call this Lightning vs. Red Wings, Game 8.

The MVP of this series might end up being a trainer. Every whistle was the start of a why-I-oughta scrum. Every skate into the corner required taking a hard shoulder to escape. And don't even think about standing in front of the net unless you're willing to wear a cross-check to the shoulder blades.

"Real good game," Lightning center Valtteri Filppula said. "Goals hard to get. Not a lot of room out there. This game is what the playoffs are about."

If there was any concern that the Lightning would be able to flip the switch from the inconsistent and occasionally unfocused regular-season team to a finely-tuned and motivated postseason one, those worries were put to rest immediately.

"We were ready," Filppula said.

The Lightning clearly is in playoff mode, even if it is missing key pieces Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman.

It played hard. It played smart. And it played with an edge. Even normally mild-mannered players such as Alex Killorn and Nikita Nesterov showed mean streaks. Heck, you know it's tough when Jonathan Drouin is starting trouble out there.

"You're watching guys that don't normally do this," Cooper said. "Players on both teams were rocking guys."

And if you wanted proof that playoff experience does, indeed, exist, the Lightning proved it by overcoming obstacles to gut out a Game 1 victory.

After falling behind 2-1 by allowing goals less than two minutes apart early in the second period, the Lightning rallied to tie it on Nikita Kucherov's second goal of the game later in the period.

But it's what happened in the third that showed the Lightning's mettle. Victor Hedman's wicked knuckle-puck goal appeared to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead with 13:05 left in regulation. The crowd went bonkers as the teammates mobbed Hedman.

Game over, right?

But replay review correctly showed Drouin was offside and the goal was waved off. It could have been a gut punch. It turned out to be a kick-start.

Less than three minutes later, Killorn scored the winner, tipping in a perfect pass from Tyler Johnson, who wasn't even sure eight hours earlier that he would be available to play because of an injury.

The Lightning, however, can't let up. The Red Wings gave no indication they will be pushovers. The Lightning certainly has its hands full, which just goes to show you the rejuvenation power of the playoffs.

Both teams struggled down the stretch in the regular season and, essentially, backed into the playoffs when the Bruins bumbled their way through the last month. But both teams hit the reset button and certainly looked postseason worthy in Game 1.

The Lightning players you would expect to stand out in these types of games did. Ryan Callahan handed out checks like he was the payroll department. Hedman was a beast, picking up where he left off last postseason by proving he's one the franchise's all-time big-game players. And Kucherov, with a pair of goals, picked up the scoring slack with the absence of Stamkos.

Meantime, as needed to make any playoff series worth its salt, the goaltending was outstanding. Jimmy Howard was pretty good for Detroit. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop was better.

Tampa Bay came into the series knowing it would need a huge effort by its team MVP Bishop just to have a chance. Bishop gave his club such a performance. And it's that type of play that has the Lightning hopeful of another deep playoff run.

But that run, as the hockey cliche goes, is a marathon not a sprint, and it starts with this series.

It's not going to be easy. It won't always be pretty.

But it will be fun. And long.

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