(SportsNetwork.com) - Ben Bishop never got a chance to make his NHL playoff debut in 2014, but the long overdue moment will happen Thursday when his Tampa Bay Lightning host the Detroit Red Wings in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
When an injury caused Bishop to miss last spring's playoffs, the 2013-14 season quickly became a case of what might have been for the Lightning. This time around, the Lightning and their franchise goaltender are ready to make up for last season's missed opportunity.
Without Bishop between the pipes, Tampa Bay was promptly swept out of the first round by Montreal. It's possible it would have been an entirely different series if the Bolts had their No. 1 goalie as three of the four games were decided by only one goal.
A wrist injury cast a pall over what had been an otherwise strong showing for Bishop in 2013-14. The 28-year-old came back with another solid campaign this season, going 40-13-5 with a 2.32 goals against average and .916 save percentage. However, because of the aforementioned injury, Bishop was unable to break ground in the playoffs last spring and will make his NHL postseason debut a year later than expected.
With Bishop doing the heavy lifting in net this season, Tampa ranked 12th in the NHL with 2.51 goals allowed per game. Still, the club's main strength is the Steven Stamkos-led offense, which paced the league with an average of 3.16 goals per game.
Stamkos finished second to Washington's Alex Ovechkin in goals this season, hitting the net 43 times while adding 29 assists. In 22 career playoff games, the 25-year-old centerman has posted eight goals and nine helpers.
Tampa's offense is deeper than it has been in recent seasons, making it difficult for opponents to shut down the Bolts by focusing on Stamkos alone. Tyler Johnson gives the club another productive centerman to use behind their captain. Johnson matched Stamkos for the team lead in points with 72 (29G, 43A).
Including Johnson and Stamkos, the Lightning had four players pot at least 24 goals. Nikita Kucherov tied Johnson for second on the team with 29 markers and also finished third with 65 points. Ryan Callahan, the former New York Rangers captain, recorded 24 goals and 20 assists.
All told, the Lightning had 11 players reach double digits in goals this season and they expect to be an extremely tough team to match up against in the postseason.
Tampa's depth is not as impressive on defense, particularly since Braydon Coburn and Jason Garrison recently went down to injury.
Coburn, who was acquired during the season in a trade with Philadelphia, recently returned to practice and he is expected to play in Game 1 of this series. He only played four games with Tampa before suffering a lower- body injury on March 10. The 30-year-old is a veteran of 72 career playoff games and while he doesn't add much in the offense department, Coburn's combination of size and skating ability could be a welcome addition for the Lightning this spring.
"(He's) looking actually pretty good, so I would expect him to be in there," head coach Jon Cooper said of Coburn's availability for Game 1.
Garrison, meanwhile, was injured on March 28 and the original estimate had him out for at least three weeks. He had the third-most points among Tampa defensemen this season after recording four goals and 26 assists. Garrison has been cleared for contact in practice, but is not expected to play on Thursday.
Regardless of the injury situation, the top pairing of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman will be available to log the big minutes for Cooper. Hedman led Tampa's blue line with 10 goals and his 38 points were one less than Stralman for the team lead.
Matt Carle, Nikita Nesterov, Andrej Sustr and Luke Witkowski also are options for Cooper at the back end. Sustr missed the last six games of the regular season with an upper-body injury but is expected to be back for Game 1 of the playoffs.
The Red Wings buckled down at the end of the regular season and made the playoffs for a 24th straight time. Although the NHL's longest postseason streak is still intact, the Red Wings could be in store for another short stay in the playoffs.
Detroit was bounced out in five games by Boston last spring, marking the second time in three seasons the club lost 4-1 in the opening round. In between those two seasons, Mike Babcock's boys made it to the second round in 2013 before bowing out against Chicago.
One difference for the Red Wings this season -- at least to begin the series -- will come between the pipes. Babcock announced Petr Mrazek as the starter in goal for Game 1, snatching the No. 1 spot from Jimmy Howard.
The 31-year-old Howard entered this season entrenched as the club's top option in net, but he lost the job during the second half of the season and was never able to win it back. He went 23-13-11 with a 2.44 GAA and .910 save percentage in 2014-15. Mrazek, a 23-year-old Czech rookie, was 16-9-2 with a 2.38 GAA and .918 save percentage.
"It's not about any of us right now, it's about the Detroit Red Wings," Babcock said when asked how Howard responded to the news Mrazek would get the start.
Mrazek has never started a playoff game at the NHL level, but he led Detroit's AHL affiliate -- the Grand Rapids Griffins -- to a Calder Cup Trophy in 2013. Mrazek helped the Griffins claim the AHL title over the Syracuse Crunch, Tampa's affiliate. The 2013 Crunch team included several current members of the Lightning, including Johnson and Ondrej Palat.
If Mrazek stumbles early in this series, Babcock has Howard and his 45 games of NHL playoff experience as a back-up plan.
Although Detroit is making a switch in net, one thing that hasn't changed since Babcock became the Wings coach in 2005-06 is the club's reliance on Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to supply the bulk of the offense.
However, Datsyuk, 36, and Zetterberg, 34, are entering the tail ends of their careers. Datsyuk still looked as dangerous as ever in 2014-15, posting 26 goals and 39 assists despite missing 19 games due to nagging injuries. The Russian is healthy heading into this series, but if the injury bug bites Datsyuk in the playoffs it may be too much for Detroit to overcome.
Zetterberg led Detroit with 66 points (17G, 49A) in 77 games but the captain only scored two goals over his club's final 29 games.
Tomas Tatar led the Red Wings with 29 goals and Gustav Nyquist followed close behind with 27. Justin Abdelkader added 23 goals, but he suffered a hand injury earlier this month and is questionable for Game 1.
While Abdelkader is day-to-day, Detroit will have to play the entire playoffs without injured forwards Erik Cole and Johan Franzen.
The Lightning opened the 2014-15 season series against Detroit with three straight wins before the Red Wings answered with a 4-0 home victory in the final meeting on March 28. Prior to that shutout loss, the Bolts had scored 12 times in winning the first three meetings.
Stamkos had four goals over the four meetings against Detroit. Datsyuk had an assist in two appearances during the season series and Zetterberg was held pointless over four games. Nyquist led the Wings with four points (2G, 2A) against Tampa in 2014-15.
Bishop posted a 3-1-0 record and a 1.97 GAA versus Detroit this season and he boasts a career mark of 7-2-0 and a 1.68 GAA in this matchup. Mrazek, who stopped 23 shots to post the shutout win over Tampa on March 28, is 1-2-0 with a 2.64 GAA in three lifetime starts against the Bolts.
This series marks the first ever playoff encounter between these clubs, who played in opposite conferences for many years before Detroit was moved to the East for the 2013-14 campaign.
Game 2 is set for Saturday night in Tampa.