The Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves at crossroads with thirteen games remaining in their regular season. The Eastern Conference playoff race is so crowded and close that despite only being one point away from the 2nd overall seed in the conference and the Atlantic division lead; the Lightning are only a mere six points from being completely out of the playoffs altogether. Most fans and pundits do not foresee the highly improbable scenario of Tampa missing the playoffs, but in a season that has seen the Lightning struggle with inconsistency; it is hardly a guarantee the Bolts are immune to hitting rough stretch heading into the last games of the year and jeopardizing their playoff hopes. The good news for Lightning fans is the team has total control over their regular season fate and whether they’ll have a positive outcome in the final games of the season with the ability to lock up the number two seed in the conference heading into the playoffs. Tampa will only face five playoff teams in their last thirteen games, giving them an ample opportunity to accumulate points against inferior competition. Most NHL playoff projections place the cut line for the playoffs around 93 to 94 points for the final spot; so if the Lightning merely get ‘ties’, against the non-playoff teams remaining on their schedule it will get them to the 94 point mark. Obviously the organization is looking for more than just making the playoffs at this point in the season and despite the inconsistencies they have still put themselves in a position to win the Atlantic division, despite all the issues they’ve faced this year. The biggest reason for teams to fear the Tampa Bay Lightning is Ben Bishop; goaltenders can singlehandedly carry you through the post season in the NHL and Bishop has proven this year he is one of the top three in the league. If the recent line shake-ups from Jon Cooper can spur some more consistent offense to include solving their power play issues prior to the end of the season, securing a two or three seed and making another legitimate run for the Stanley cup are real possibilities.
This week, the Lightning will play three games all on the road as they finish up their four game road trip before coming home for a six game home stand. Here is a breakdown of this week’s opponents:
MARCH 15 @ TORONTO The Toronto Maple Leafs are the front-runners to land the number one overall pick in the upcoming 2016 NHL draft lottery. After selling off all of their major veteran trade assets at the trade deadline the Maple Leafs philosophy became very clear; get the top overall draft pick and allow their rich minor league prospects get a taste of the professional hockey league as they build for the future. Despite their focus on developing their young players and top pick, the Leafs continue to play fast and physical giving potential playoff teams issues. They’ve recently beat the Islanders and Red Wings both of whom are fighting for their playoff lives buoyed by suddenly finding adequate goaltending from Garrett Sparks and Jonathan Bernier, and timely scoring from players like Leo Komarov and Morgan Rielly. The recent improved goaltending has allowed their young players to play without fear of making mistakes something the Lightning experienced firsthand during their last matchup on February 29th a 2-1 Tampa win. The Leafs young players gave the Lightning fits in the corners out skating and out working the Bolts on several shifts. Fortunately Tampa used superior goaltending and a fluke goal to beat the Leafs. The Lightning cannot afford to give this young team any hopes of playing the role of spoiler and a fast start to the first period will go a long way in ensuring that. Young players provide lots of speed and energy for Toronto, but young players also typically make mistakes and miscues that Tampa capitalize on. The Lightning will likely get several power play opportunities against the Leafs, and must make Toronto pay when they do take penalties. Tampa cannot afford to miss out on getting two points against the worst team in the league.
MARCH 17 @ DALLAS The Dallas Stars are the most dangerous team in the Western Conference and have some remarkable similarities to the Lightning team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals last season. The Stars have relied on their trio of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Jason Spezza to lead an offensive juggernaut that overwhelmed teams with an onslaught of goals throughout the year. The three stars have combined for 42% of Dallas’s league leading 227 goals scored this season. Recently, the Stars have struggled trying to close out the regular season, going a disappointing 4-6-3 in their last 13 games. Are these recent struggles a sign of the league figuring out this young Stars team, or is it merely a club that has grown tired of the regular season and needs to playoffs to start to get refocused? Whatever reasons for their recent struggles, the Lightning can absolutely expect to see a team playing for their home ice advantage lives when they meet. Dallas is definitely not infallible as they struggle to stop teams from scoring effectively, and just hope to overwhelm them with their own potent offense. Dallas also lacks an above average penalty kill unit, again speaking to their inability to play lock down defense. In their only other meeting at the beginning of the season Dallas beat the Bolts 5-3; but that game was so long ago neither of these teams will resemble what they were when they faced off back in October. The Lightning will be definite underdogs in this game and will likely rely on their anchor Ben Bishop to neutralize a Dallas tidal wave of goals. The Tampa power play must take advantage of a sub-standard penalty kill unit when they get a chance against Dallas because it will likely take three or four goals to beat them. If the Lightning can get out of the 1st period tied or even better with a lead; the potential to pull the upset against a team reeling down the stretch is not far-fetched.
MARCH 19 @ ARIZONA The Arizona Coyotes season is on the brink of being over. Many experts would agree that their season is already over, as they find themselves seven points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and having a negative 27 goal differential with only thirteen games to play. The Coyotes have lost seven of their last ten games and without a long streak to end the year will likely miss the playoffs. The Coyotes don’t do anything particular well ranking middle of the league for goals scored and the power play while ranking near dead last in the goals against and penalty kill units. Once the Coyotes playoff hopes are officially vanquished they will find themselves in the worst place imaginable for a franchise; not good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to have a shot in the lottery. Arizona is not completely lost however, as they still have forward Shane Doan and defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson who provide most of their offensive punch. The Coyotes biggest problems have been their inability to find an effective goaltender or secondary scoring option to bolster their 2nd and 3rd lines. The Lightning will need to take advantage of a Coyotes team teetering on shutting it down for the year by testing their inability to stop teams from scoring. If Tampa can prevent the temptation to play down to their competition, which they’ve been guilty of doing several times this year; they should find a way to win to close out their four game road trip.
Useless Prediction for the Week: The Bolts will beat the Maple Leafs in a closer than expected game. Unfortunately the Dallas Stars are fighting for the number one overall seed in the Western Conference and will not allow Tampa to come in and steal a game they need themselves, this one could get ugly for Tampa in a loss. The Lightning should rebound against Arizona taking out a Coyotes team ready to quit. My useless prediction this week has the Bolts going (2-1) & getting 4 points.
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