Red Wings can beat the injury-depleted Lightning in playoff rematch

Pavel Datsyuk has announced that he will retire and return to his native Russia after the playoffs.

Pavel Datsyuk has announced that he will retire and return to his native Russia after the playoffs.

Motown, you’ve got yourself a playoff hockey team for a 25th straight season.

However, the way in which the Detroit Red Wings got in was not at all pretty. They lost to the New York Rangers, 3-2, in their final game of the regular season Saturday and thus, qualified for the postseason only because of the Ottawa Senators’ victory over the Boston Bruins in the Bruins’ final game.

It was the definition of backing into the postseason. Yet, it doesn’t make a difference how they made it in. The only thing that matters is that they did, and now, they might actually stand a chance at advancing past the first round.

The major reason why is their first-round opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning, won’t have their best player available for the series in four-time NHL All-Star Steven Stamkos.

With Stamkos out of the lineup due to a blood clot in his right arm, the Lightning will be lacking their leading goal scorer (36) and their second-highest point producer (64) on the season. With his 36 goals, Stamkos is also tied for the seventh-most goals in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby.

The loss of Stamkos may cause the Lightning to be off their “A game” when it comes to goal scoring, yet does it matter when the Wings don’t have a surefire No. 1 goaltender as they prepare to face Tampa Bay in the first round for a second straight year?

For instance, 24-year-old Petr Mrazek, the former go-to goalie for the Wings, has allowed three goals or more in three of his last five times in net. Additionally, he allowed four goals against the Philadelphia Flyers on March 15th, and has allowed three or more goals in eight of his last 16 games.

And when you really get down and dirty with the numbers, you’ll find that his save percentage in the month of March was an abysmal .884 while his goals against average was an equally dismal 3.72, which was easily his highest for any month of the 2015-16 campaign.

Mrazek’s struggles have opened the door for veteran Jimmy Howard to reclaim his spot as Detroit’s No. 1 netminder, and he’s done better than expected in the role. In fact, he’s allowed two goals or less in six of his last seven appearances in net, including a must-win game against the Flyers on April 6. Howard came through with a shutout on 30 shots faced.

And while his numbers in March — an .886 save percentage and 3.18 goals against average — weren’t much better than Mrazek’s, they still, at the end of the day, were good enough for him to capture his old job.

And if you don’t think Howard did enough in March to warrant the status of the Wings’ starting goaltender going into the playoffs, just look at his month of April numbers.

Over the course of five games, “Jimbo” recorded his second-highest save percentage of the season for a single month with a .916 percentage as well as his second-best GAA for a single month with a 2.37 mark.

What does that mean? Despite the fact the Wings don’t possess a true No. 1 goalie, maybe, just maybe, they have enough to brush aside the injury-depleted Lightning, who will also be without defenseman Anton Stralman. Stralman finished 13th in Norris Trophy voting for the top defenseman in the game last season.

To make matters worse, veteran right winger Ryan Callahan, a key member of the Lightning’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, missed the final three games of the regular season and is questionable for game one due to a lower-body injury.

Tampa’s injury woes are why even though I doubted the Wings and whether they were deserving of a 25th straight playoff appearance in this very blog space two weeks ago, I’d be remiss not to give “Hockeytown” a fighter’s chance against the defending Eastern Conference champs.

And if simply making the playoffs wasn’t enough to get the Red Wings motivated for their opening-round series, I think they’ve found an extra source of motivation via alternate captain and three-time All-Star Pavel Datsyuk’s announcement to retire from the NHL at the end of Detroit’s postseason run.

Entering the playoffs, the man known for his beautiful puck-handling has played in the eighth-most games in franchise history (953), with the seventh-most goals (314), the fifth-most assists (604) and the sixth-most points in Wings history (918). Pretty impressive considering the storied history of the winged wheel.

“The Magic Man” has accomplished all of this while capturing two Stanley Cup championships and being a three-time recipient of the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the best defensive forward in the league.

It’s why the 37-year-old deserves to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end of this year’s Cup Finals as much as anyone in the National Hockey League.

With that being said, the Wings making a deep playoff run is far from likely.

However, making it out of the first round is a definite possibility, and doing so and making a run to the Cup Finals is now bound to produce a much sweeter taste for Wings fans because of the looming retirement of an all-time fan favorite and franchise great in Datsyuk.