Lightning-Red Wings playoff matchup inevitable for Stevie Y

Steve Yzerman didn’t celebrate a lot of birthdays at home with family when he played for the Red Wings.

More likely, Yzerman was in a hotel room or at the rink for a morning skate. Or he was in a plane, jetting his way to the West Coast. And if he was in Detroit proper, he was likely at Joe Louis Arena, lacing up his skates for a game that evening.

Yzerman, the iconic Red Wings captain of days gone by, was born on May 9. For too many NHL players, a birthday in May would almost assure the man of the hour a cake with candles and the wife and kids.

But for Yzerman, May was still hockey time. His Red Wings were usually still in the mix, still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And birthdays were way down on the priority list.

It was Yzerman’s teammate and winner of three Cups in Detroit, Brendan Shanahan, who explained to me the mindset of a player pursuing the Cup.

We sat in an office inside the Trenton Ice Arena, in April 2010. Shanny was in town for a promotional hockey game between the alumni of two high schools.

I asked him what spring hockey, post-season hockey, was like for a player.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

But the ultimate payoff made it all worth it. Shanahan experienced it thrice, in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

“That’s what I liked most about it. When the final horn sounded and you were the winner and the season was over, that’s when you sort of pulled the blinders off and really took a look around you. You were on a mission. You were focused entirely on winning, and that was a lot of fun.”

Yzerman won three Cups with Shanny. And Stevie Y was a member of the Red Wings’ front office for a fourth Cup, in 2008.

Yzerman is closing in on 50 years old now, proof that time truly does not stop for any man.

Chances are, on May 9 this year, when no. 50 hits, Yzerman won’t be at home with wife Lisa and his three daughters.

Chances are, Yzerman’s current team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, of which he’s the general manager, will still be rolling along in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That will have meant that the Lightning would have disposed of Yzerman’s old team in the Eastern Conference’s first round, which is expected to happen.

It will mean another birthday put on hold, shoved to the background. Even one as significant as his 50th.

For many a May, Yzerman’s suit was a blood red sweater with the “C” on it, and skates. These days in May, Yzerman wears Armani and wing-tipped shoes. But the goal is the same.

It’s hard to believe, but Yzerman was named Tampa Bay’s GM nearly five years ago.

When he was rumored to be in the Lightning’s cross-hairs for the job—a time when Tampa Bay hockey left a lot to be desired—I wrote that even though the job and the franchise were beneath him, that Yzerman should take it. Sometimes that’s what you have to do when you want to do something in the worst way.

The Lightning qualified for that back in 2010. They were one of the NHL’s worst teams, and organizations. If you don’t believe me, just remember that the Lightning actually plucked Barry Melrose from the TV studio and put him back behind the bench, with disastrous results.

The Melrose debacle was still fresh on the minds of hockey people when the Lightning pursued Yzerman, who badly wanted to run his own team after serving his apprenticeship under Ken Holland, Jimmy Devellano, Jim Nill et al.

It wasn’t going to happen in Detroit, and Yzerman knew it. Everyone around hockey knew it.

The Minnesota Wild had made a run at Yzerman during the 2009-10 season, but Stevie Y turned them down, for whatever reason.

But when Tampa called, Yzerman was all ears.

The Lightning franchise was a mess, and it didn’t look like a very good GM job, but as I wrote, Yzerman was wise to accept it. That way, I surmised, Yzerman could learn the ropes with a franchise from which little was expected.

Ha!

Yzerman, using whatever deftness he learned from Holland and company, turned the Lighting around in one year.

Tampa Bay didn’t even qualify for the playoffs in 2010, but one year later, with Yzerman pushing the buttons and pulling the gears, the Lightning were in the Eastern Conference Finals.

And Yzerman, as a rookie GM, was named the NHL’s General Manager of the Year.

Yzerman was a rookie in 1983, as well—an 18-year-old dressing next to the likes of Brad Park and Danny Gare in the Red Wings locker room.

Yzerman was as quiet as a mouse. After a game that season, I asked him some questions and even if the room had been deserted, I would have had a hard time hearing his answers.

Yzerman is still quiet, relatively so. And he quietly has built the Lightning into one of the NHL’s best teams.

He’ll look down from the press box during this upcoming first round, as his team likely skates circles around the Red Wings, and one can only imagine the emotions coursing through him.

This playoff series is the only time that Yzerman, a Red Wing forever, won’t be a fan of the Winged Wheel in the post-season. It will be the only time that he roots against the boys in the blood red sweaters.

Yzerman hired a coach, Jon Cooper, who is (again, quietly) doing a whale of a job behind the Lightning bench. Cooper is in his second season with the Lightning and in both of them, the team topped 100 points and finished second in the Atlantic Division.

For all of his early success as an NHL general manager, Yzerman is also a winner in Armani at the Olympics.

He put together the 2010 and 2014 Gold Medal winning teams, as Team Canada’s Executive Director. The British Columbia native is revered in his home country.

You figured that once the Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference in 2013, it was only a matter of time before Current GM Yzerman would go up against Former Player Yzerman in the playoffs.

The Lightning sign his checks, but the Red Wings logo will forever be branded on Yzerman’s huge, competitive heart.

But starting on Thursday, it’s all business. There won’t be time or room for sentimentality. There are 16 teams vying for the Stanley Cup and its pursuit every spring is cutthroat and its competitors would just as soon knock their own mothers off the puck. And maybe give her an elbow when the referees are looking the other way.

Chances are, Yzerman’s Lightning will oust the Red Wings in a series that will be lucky to go six games.

Or, the Red Wings could pull off an upset. Yzerman knows what that feels like, too—from the losing end. As Red Wings team captain, it was up to Yzerman to explain away yet another playoff disappointment, when the sweat was still running down his body and his skates still on.

Those unexpected playoff ousters made the three Cups won as a player all the more sweet.

Starting Thursday, the Red Wings will lose at least one fan. But if the Red Wings somehow manage to upend the Lightning, you can bet that Stevie Y will be pulling for that Winged Wheel the rest of the way.

Even if it means peeking at the TV during his 50th birthday celebration.

Game 33: Red Wings-Tampa Bay Enotes

The Red Wings lost another game in shootout fashion. That’s not news anymore.

But tonight in Tampa, the Red Wings executed the shootout as if they had a train to catch.

Confidence is nil in the shootout, and it showed tonight, as six Red Wings took six uninspired shots at Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, and it ended in a 2-1 loss when Martin St. Louis finally scored on Tampa’s sixth try on Jonas Gustavsson. Actually, it was five uninspired Red Wings shots. Todd Bertuzzi didn’t even get a shot off on his attempt.

Kyle Quincey scored the Red Wings’ lone goal at 15:04 of the first period.

The Red Wings have now lost 11 straight shootouts. Ridiculous.

Nikita Kucherov tied the game with just 44 seconds left in the second period.

Detroit (15-9-9) leaves Florida with two out of four points after losing two shootouts to the Panthers and Lightning. The bad news is, the Red Wings come home for a stretch. Home , Crap Home.

BOX SCORE

BOTTOM LINE: Gustavsson did his best to give the Red Wings a chance to win, but Tampa’s Bishop was a tad better.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: The Red Wings didn’t play a bad game whatsoever. They were pretty tight defensively and didn’t leave Gustavsson hung out to dry for the most part. Bishop was terrific for Tampa. The special teams weren’t so special for either side, unless you’re a fan of the PK. Both teams went 0-for-4 on the power play. The Pittsburgh Penguins invade JLA on Saturday. This is a great time for the Red Wings to make a statement at home.

 

 

Spotlight on the Opponent: Valtteri Filppula

What: Detroit at Tampa Bay
When: Thursday, December 12, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

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He still wears that familiar no. 51, but he’s no Dick Butkus on the ice.

Valtteri Filppula plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning now, signed away from the Red Wings as a free agent last summer. The Red Wings didn’t particularly want to lose Filppula, but in today’s salary cap world, you can’t always keep everyone.

The Red Wings sure would like to have Filppula, a center, on their roster right about now.

First, injuries in Detroit have decimated the center position, with three of the four Red Wings starting centers (Henrik Zetterberg, Stephen Weiss and Darren Helm) spending time on the injured list already this season.

Second, Filppula’s “replacement,” free agent signee Weiss, has been less than spectacular, registering only four points thus far.

Filppula has 10 goals and 10 assists so far for Tampa this season, and seems to be fitting in nicely with his new team. Filppula spent eight seasons in Detroit, scoring an even 100 goals as a Red Wing. In the 2009 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, Filppula scored 16 points, including 13 assists.

Here are some words about Filppula from one of his new teammates and his coach, Jon Cooper.

“I think he kind of got lost in the shuffle for a while in Detroit, with all the great players they’ve had,’’ Steven Stamkos said. “He’s really getting to showcase the skill set he brings game in and game out. I knew he had that skill, but to see the calmness that he plays with, to see the poise he has with the puck, he’s a very smart player. He’s fit in great.’’

Cooper said Filppula has exceeded expectations on and off the ice.

“He’s brought stability in the second (center spot),’’ Cooper said. “I think we just underestimated his quiet calm. He’s not your vocal guy in the room, but he’s a leader. I think he just calms everybody down when he has the puck. He’s poised under pressure all day. He’s been great for our team, especially with all the young guys we have.’’

Though Val has slowed a little from his, ahem, lightning-fast start in Tampa, he is still third on the team in scoring, behind Stamkos (who is likely out for the season with a broken leg) and team leader Martin St. Louis.

Game 18: Red Wings-Tampa Bay Enotes

One too many turnover, one too many broken coverage, one too many point blank scoring chance surrendered.

One more loss at home.

The Red Wings, playing yet another sloppy, care-free game at JLA, fell to the more determined, more present Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-2, in overtime.

That’s five straight games without a win on home ice for the Red Wings (9-5-4).

Teddy Purcell scored with 1:09 left in OT, as a breakdown by Detroit in their own zone left Purcell wide open in front of Jimmy Howard. Purcell took a pass from Richard Panik, who harassed Kyle Quincey off the puck behind the Red Wings net, and buried a wrist shot over Howard’s right shoulder.

The Lightning are now 12-4.

The Red Wings, unlike against Dallas on Thursday, when they might have deserved a better fate than an OT loss, deserved to lose this game. They were fortunate to get a point, frankly.

Countless turnovers—both in neutral ice and in their own zone. Too many quality scoring chances for TB. Not enough pressure on Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who at 6’7″ makes Ken Dryden look like Jimmy Rutherford.

The Red Wings didn’t crash the net. They didn’t forecheck. They weren’t “hard to play against,” which is what coach Mike Babcock complained about during the last home stand.

Detroit came out of the gate like they were shot out of a cannon, pinning the Bolts in their own zone for the game’s first minute. There was a definite sense of urgency. It reminded me of a prize fighter looking to knock his opponent out in the first round.

After that, it was a game filled with TB blocking shots, disrupting passing lanes, and basically making the Red Wings looking frustrated and very average.

The Wings need to figure out why they play so much differently at home, and they’d better figure it out quick. Five of the next six games are at The Joe.

BOTTOM LINE: The Red Wings were playing with fire all night, and they finally got burned.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: Watch Danny DeKeyser closely. He’s suffering from a bout of sophomore jinx. He isn’t playing with the same confidence he had last year before getting injured. Once again, the no. 1 line of Henrik Zetterberg-Pavel Datsyuk-Todd Bertuzzi was the best on the ice for Detroit, and there was little if any contribution from anyone else, though Darren Helm, centering the second line, looked more like the Helm of old, as he continues to get his legs under him.