Tampa Bay Lightning fans must feel like their season is the living embodiment of the iconic Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day”. The Lightning rattle off some wins, the fans get excited, the team than proceeds to fall off a cliff for a few games crushing aspirations of being a real contender in the Eastern conference. The inevitable panic begins to set in during the losing, and then the Lightning rattle off a couple of impressive wins, like they did on their last two road games against Carolina and Pittsburgh, and back comes the excitement. Rinse, Repeat. The recent road trip success came on the backs of the one consistent thing for Tampa this season: Ben Bishop. Bishop stopped over 94% of the shots he faced on the road, which paired with huge contributions from 3rd and 4th line players like JT Brown, Jonathan Marchessault, and Cedric Paquette provided more than enough offense to get two big road wins. The Lightning will hope to continue to build on their current three game winning-streak as they get one home game, before heading on the road for a while as they head into this week’s slate of games.
FEBRUARY 23 VS. ARIZONA The Arizona Coyotes can’t stop teams from lighting their lamp. They rank dead last in goals against allowing a whooping 3.1 a game through 59 games this season. The Coyotes inability to stop teams from scoring is combination of substandard defensive play, injuries, and their inability to find a anchor in-goal they can trust. Lightning fans will recognize two former Lightning goaltenders: Mike Smith and Anders Lindback; both of whom have started several games for Arizona this season and played extremely poorly while doing so. The Coyotes are only six points out of the 8th playoff position in the Western Conference, but this team resembles a lottery team far more than a team that could sneak into the playoffs and scare teams if they did. It’s not all bad for Arizona, they do have a fairly potent offensive punch ranking in the top 10 for goals for and a power play that is in the top half of the league. The coyotes offense is fueled by perennial all-star and ancient veteran Shane Doan, who despite approaching his 40th birthday, is on pace to have his highest goal in his 19 year career. They also have young defensive anchor Oliver Ekman-Larsson, leads the team in points. The Lightning who have recently rediscovered their scoring touch in early periods must jump on the Coyotes the moment the puck drops. The Lightning should have no problem scoring goals, and as long as they can prevent taking silly penalties or taking periods off they hold all the major defensive advantages against a Coyotes team who may soon be thinking about the offseason more than they are this season.
FEBRUARY 26 @ NEW JERSEY The New Jersey Devils are the Arizona Coyotes Doppelganger; they stop goals better than any other team in the NHL, but can’t score them either as they rank dead last in goals for at 2.2 a game. Stud goaltender Cory Schneider must be scratching his head as to why despite stopping shots better than any team in the league, his team currently sits outside of the playoffs in the 9th seed and has a negative 8 goal differential on the year. The Devils could easily still be a playoff team if they could just get “average” offense from their top lines, but unfortunately outside of Adam Henrique and Lee Stempniak they’ve been unable to find consistent scoring from their forwards and centers. The injury to Michael Cammalleri has obviously contributed to their stagnant offense but even when he returns in a few games it could be difficult in a loaded Eastern Conference to try and win enough low scoring games to sneak into the playoffs. The Devils will likely try to drag the game against the Lightning into the mud, slowing the aggressive zone rushes by utilizing their size advantage. The Devils are likely aware of Tampa’s 1st period struggles this season, so they will likely try to keep the Bolts off the scoreboard in the first and force Tampa to take some risks as the periods wear on to beat Schneider. The Lightning should have one mission going into New Jersey, get the early lead and don’t look back. The Devils cannot play catch-up, the first goal or two will be imperative as to determining who wins this game.
FEBRUARY 28 @ BOSTON The Boston Bruins will likely remain a constant threat to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s playoff positioning for the rest of the season. Both teams have exchanged having the upper hand several times this season, and both teams currently sit at 70 points with about 20 games to play when they’ll meet on Sunday. This will be the third meeting of the season, and with both teams splitting their previous games any chance to potentially win the season series heading into their final meeting in March could have large playoff implications. A win on Sunday could mean a chance to get closer to ensuring home ice against the other if they were to meet in the playoffs. The Bruins have experienced good fortune with excellent health for most of the season, and have no problems finding the back of the net as they rank in the top 5 in both even strength goals and power play goals. Winger Brad Marchand and center Patrice Bergeron have been terrorizing defenders this season as they have nearly 100 points between the two of them. Most teams would be ecstatic to have one 100 point pairing through 60 games, but the Bruins are so deep they have two. Loui Eriksson and David Krejci have kept pace with Bergeron and Marchand, allowing Boston to be a scoring threat any time one of the four is on the ice. If the Bruins have a weakness, it’s been their inability to keep goals out consistently this season. Goaltender Tuukka Rask has shown flashes of what Boston would like out of their starter, but he’s also had several games where he looks lost in the crease allowing some high tallies for a top tier goalie. The Bruins luck out getting the Lightning on the end of a back to back road game, and will likely look to jump on the Lightning early forcing their tired legs to keep up. The Lightning could potentially be playing Vasilevskiy in net to give Ben Bishop a rest if he plays the night before against New Jersey. Whoever gets the call in net for Tampa will likely have to try and steal the game with a tremendous effort for the Lightning to have a chance at the win.
Useless Prediction for the Week: The Lightning will hold serve at home against a sub-par Arizona team. Cooper should have the team ready to keep their winning streak going when they head to New Jersey having two days off to rest and prepare. The win in New Jersey should get them to their big show down against Boston on with a 5 game winning streak; I think the streak ends in Boston, as the Bruins beat a tired Tampa team playing a back to back, and happy to get a split out of their first two road games. My useless prediction: the Lightning go (2-1) and get 4 points for this week.
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