The long wait for Tampa Bay Lightning fans hoping their team that dominated the Eastern Conference last year to return this season, is finally over. Last year’s Eastern Conference champions are in the midst of a franchise high nine game winning streak, and appear to want to not only to retain their Eastern Conference belt, but make another serious push for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The recent winning has Lightning fans believing the magic of last year has returned, but the methods in which the resurgent Bolts have put together this winning streak are a little different than last season’s cup run. Last year Tampa’s dominance saw them primarily overwhelm teams offensively to include an effective power play. This year’s team has seen more of a reliance on dominant goaltending backed by timely offensive production that can adjust to multiple styles as their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses dictate. The nine game win streak partly led by Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson’s returns as dangerous scoring threats, have overshadowed the tremendous play by back-up goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, has allowed the Lightning to give their anchor in net Ben Bishop, scheduled days off in hopes of keeping him healthy and fresh for an extended playoff run, without any fear of drop off in production when Vasilevskiy is in net. If there is one legitimate critique and difference from last year’s team fans and coach Jon Cooper hope to fix before the playoffs begin, its finding a way to fix Tampa’s total lack of power play production, specifically on the road where their power play percentage of 10.8% ranks only two spots higher than dead last in the league. If the Lightning can solve their man advantage issues dreams of a Stanley Cup could become a reality, which seemed completely improbable for a team that was outside of the playoffs looking in only a mere two months ago.
This week, the Lightning will play four games in six days against three teams spread across the Eastern Conference standings; all of whom have very different motivations as they enter their contests against Tampa this week. Here is a breakdown of this week’s opponents:
MARCH 7 @ PHILADELPHIA The Philadelphia Flyers playoff hopes are on life support, they trail the 8th seeded Pittsburgh Penguins by five points with only seventeen games to play and now must face the hottest team in the Eastern Conference back to back this week. The Flyers according to the latest playoff projections are going to need to get to around 94 points before the season ends to have a legitimate shot of making the playoffs. Currently sitting at 71 points, this would require them to win eleven of their next their last seventeen games of the season, so barring a sudden explosion of offense; it will be extremely difficult for them to make the playoffs. However, until they are mathematically eliminated the Flyers will keep pushing for a playoff berth and therefore cannot afford to lose both games against Tampa; at the very least they must salvage a split. In their only previous meeting with the Lighting, Tampa’s home opener they lost 3-2 in overtime, but the team Philadelphia faced than versus the one they’ll see in Philly on March 7th is very different, none of which bodes well for the Flyers. The Lightning can expect to see a team ready to fight for every inch of the ice as they travel to Philadelphia for the first game of their upcoming two contests. Philadelphia does not do anything particularly great as they rank near the middle of the league to the bottom third in every major team statistical category. Thus, if they cannot overwhelm the Lightning offensively or hope to stop them defensively, most likely they’ll look to drag the smaller and quicker Tampa team into the mud for a grinding war giving them their best chance at a victory. If Tampa can avoid the penalty box, contain Philadelphia’s bruising scorer winger Wayne Simmonds and manage to get an early goal, they can dictate the pace of the game and push their win streak into double digits for the first time in franchise history.
MARCH 8 vs BOSTON The Boston Bruins will be the Lightning’s toughest opponent this week and potentially the team that ends their historic winning streak if they make it past Philadelphia the night before. The Boston Bruins offense is top three in the league and along with the Tampa Bay Lightning crawled back into the Atlantic division race as they are only three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bruins desperately need a win against Tampa to even the season series at two games apiece as tie-breakers will likely end up deciding a three team race for the division (Tampa, Boston, Florida). The Bruins resurgence has come with the reemergence of their goaltender Tuukka Rask, who is now playing like a top-tier goaltender once again. If the Bruins can get consistent play from Rask, they can absolutely compete with and beat any team in the NHL. Bruin Left winger Brad Marchand continues to lead the team in goals scored at 33 on the year, and leads an offense that can easily put up five or six goals on the best defensive teams in the league if they can impose their pace. The Lightning will be facing a determined Bruins team that sees a number two seed on the line when the teams meet, so they must prepare for what is sure to be a fast and frenetic 1st period. Lightning goalie Ben Bishop will likely need a herculean effort to slow down this Bruin scoring machine, but if the Lightning can get out of the first period tied or even better with a lead; the Bolts will have a chance to win the season series against Boston and pick up a huge two points down the stretch.
MARCH 11 vs PHILADELPHIA (See detailed Flyers breakdown above); but if Tampa beats Philadelphia on March 7th they could be looking at a team teetering on quitting on the season depending on Tampa beats them. If Philadelphia beats Tampa on March 7th they cannot expect to see a desperate team gaining confidence after beating a division leader and scrapping for any points they can get as they continue their pursuit of the last playoff seed.
MARCH 13 @ COLUMBUS The Columbus Blue Jackets are no longer the worst team in the Eastern conference. This likely is not an accomplishment Blue Jacket fans will be telling their grandkids about, but when John Tortorella took over the dysfunctional team early in the season it appeared they were the early favorite to be the absolute worst team in the league. Tortorella and the Blue Jacket players deserve credit for continuing to play hard as they could have easily quit on the season after their disastrous start. However, since January they’ve managed to go 11-8-4 over their last 23 games, which if they had not started the season so horribly would have put them in at least a conversation for the playoffs. The problem for Columbus is they did start the season so horribly so they are only left with looking to build a solid foundation as they head into next year. A win against the division leading and possible Stanley Cup contender Lightning would certainly add to the optimism heading into next year. Brandon Saad is finally starting to look like the goal scoring star Columbus hoped he would be when they acquired him this offseason and while goalie Joonas Korpisalo is likely not what Columbus needs in net long-term he has played well recently against several playoff teams. Tampa should know right away which Columbus team they are playing as they typically start quickly in their victories or never find their way out of the garage in their defeats. If Tampa can avoid overlooking a team headed for the lottery they should start their road trip off their four game road trip with an easy victory.
Useless Prediction for the Week: The Bolts will beat a Philadelphia team on the brink of packing it in this season. The Boston Bruins who have long been a torn in Tampa’s side no matter the rosters will spoil the Lightning’s winning streak in overtime. However, Tampa should quickly return to start a new win streak with victories against Philadelphia and Columbus to close out the week. My useless prediction this week has the Bolts going (3-0-1) & getting 7 points.
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