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Crashing The Net: The Easy Way or The Hard Way

Crashing The Net: The Easy Way or The Hard Way 
It is obvious and a redundant statement but its worth restating: the Tampa Bay Lightning’s final seven regular season games will determine their playoff seeding and most likely their fate in the postseason. For Tampa, playoff match-ups are likely more important than their actual seed ranking; as their matchup could mean the difference between a Stanley Cup run and a first round exit which would be just as devastating as missing the playoffs altogether. Inconsistency has become a reoccurring theme covering the Bolts this year, but wild swings in play may have as much to do with match-ups as it does Tampa’s effort and talent on the ice.  Tampa’s style of play is very effective against Eastern Conference playoff teams like Boston and Pittsburgh, both of whom Tampa beat in their regular season series and look to match-up well with across their top lines. However, there are other Eastern conference ‘playoff’ teams the Lightning were equally ineffective against such as: the Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals, and Philadelphia Flyers; all of whom beat Tampa in their regular season series. Fortunately for the Lightning both the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals appear are essentially locks for the top three or four seeds in the playoffs, thus allowing the Lightning to avoid them in the opening round if they can finish higher than 5th place in the Eastern conference when the season ends. The remaining schedule is also a good sign for the Lightning as five of their last seven games will come against teams completely out of the playoff race giving them adequate chances to add improve their overall seed with an outside chance at the Atlantic division title. Wherever the Lightning end up seeded, they will have to do it without core defenseman Anton Stralman; who is out indefinitely after suffering a nasty fibula fracture against the Islanders last week. The Lightning have not ruled him out for a return during the playoffs but it would likely require Tampa getting to the semi-finals or Eastern Conference finals for him to have any real shot of returning. The Lightning will need Stralman if they have any dreams of hoisting Lord Stanley’s cup this year; they won’t get him back unless they can make another deep run, and they can greatly increase their odds at a deep run if they can get a favorable matchup. The latest bad loss to the rival Panthers at home, with the Atlantic division title on the line; shows the Lightning need to avoid certain matchups if they hope to make a return appearance to the Stanley Cup finals. The good news for Tampa fans is that the team can go a long way in determining their fate, with favorable matchups, if the Lightning can finish the last seven games with more wins than losses. The Bolts are standing on a playoff path heading in two directions, which one will take: the easy or the hard way? 
This week, the Lightning will play three games all at home as they finish up their last home stand of the regular season. Here is a breakdown of this week’s opponents:
MARCH 28 VS TORONTO The Toronto Maple Leafs were the clear front-runners to land the number one overall pick in the upcoming 2016 NHL draft lottery only a mere two weeks ago. However, after promoting some of their top minor league prospects, the Leafs have won five of their last seven games; allowing five other teams to now be within 3 points or less of the number one pick with only seven games to go. While most franchises would love to see their young prospects come up and bring life to a team that is lacking in positives for a few seasons now, Leafs fans would prefer to see competitive ‘losses’ helping secure the top overall pick, more than getting meaningless points in the standings that jeopardize it. Toronto can’t ask its young players to take it easy, as many young guys know anytime you get a chance to play in the NHL you must make the most of it because there are no guarantees you’ll make the active roster the next season. As in their previous meetings the Lightning will likely get several power play opportunities against the Leafs, and must make Toronto pay when they do take penalties. The Tampa power play has found a slight pulse recently, and the ability to continue to rejuvenate against an energetic but sloppy and young Leafs team could really help build confidence in their biggest weakness heading into the playoffs. Just as when they met eleven days ago, Tampa cannot afford to miss out on getting two points against “one” of the worst teams in the league. 

MARCH 31 VS MONTREAL The Montreal Canadiens started the season as the hottest and most surprising team in the league as they won nine consecutive games to start the year. The amazing start to the season seems so far removed compared to what Montreal’s season has become: a total injury riddled collapse. The Canadiens are now set to make the lottery, not the playoffs, and head into the offseason with no real direction for where the team is going after this season. Key injuries to the core players of the franchise: P.K. Subban, Brendan Gallagher, and Carey Price have been devastating for a team that has shown to be not really deep especially in goal. The loss of Carey Price was essentially the end of Montreal’s season because the team was built around having an all-world goaltender and without his consistency in net, the Canadiens have not been able to find the offense necessary to make up for his loss. The Canadiens still have dangerous players in Max Paciretty and Alex Galchenyuk so the short-handed Bolts defensive pairings will need to key on the top lines of Montreal to give Tampa it’s best chance to capture two critical points.  

APRIL 2 VS NEW JERSEY The New Jersey Devils have an excellent goaltender in Cory Schneider, as well as penalty killing and power play units that rank in the top ten in the league statistically. Unfortunately they cannot score goals, and when you cannot score goals in the modern NHL, your team must win a lot of one goal games which allows for a lot of luck and variance that the Devils have not been on the right side of this season. Their inability to score goals has left the team with a -22 goal differential which typically indicates you are not a viable playoff team even if they were to make the playoffs. The Devils have only five starters who have a positive +/- rating on the season which shows it is a systemic team offensive issue. The month of February really ended New Jersey’s playoff aspirations as they went 5-6-2 during the month and lost their anchor in-goal Cory Schneider to start the month of March, effectively dashing any legitimate playoff hopes the team had. While New Jersey is not technically eliminated from playoff contention, they would likely have to finish the season on a 7 game winning streak, and even then would still likely need help to sneak into the playoffs. The Lightning will likely look to pressure Keith Kinkaid, Schneider’s backup, early in the game forcing the young goalie to face a barrage of shots and carry the offensively challenged Devils. If Tampa can take a lead in the first period, the Devils could be ready to pack it in, especially if they have been eliminated from playoff contention prior to their meeting with Tampa.  In their lone prior meeting this year Tampa won 4-0, so expect a similar effort unless the Bolts play down to their competition.
Useless Prediction for the Week: The Bolts will beat the Maple Leafs handily, letting their frustrations out after losing a critical game to the Florida Panthers. The Lightning should dispatch the rudderless Montreal Canadians who are in full free fall mode after being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and continue to reel from key injuries to many of their most important players. The Lightning should also help in mathematical elimination of the New Jersey Devils, who have long faded from any legitimate playoff aspirations.  My useless prediction this week has the Bolts getting the seep (3-0) & getting a crucial six points.

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