Coming out of the NHL All-Star break the Tampa Bay Lightning have experienced all the highs and lows a team can experience in an entire season, and they have only reached its half-way mark. The good news is despite the litany of injuries, off ice distractions, and inconsistent play the Bolts find themselves tied for the fourth playoff seed in the Eastern conference. The ‘optimist’ would see a team snake bitten much of the season by a variety of issues outside of their control. They could assume that at some point luck will begin to go Tampa’s way making; which could make them one of the most underrated and scary contenders as race for the playoffs approaches. The bad news is the Lightning through a half-season of play, look pretty pedestrian with regards to their offensive and special-teams rankings. Tampa ranks around 14th to 16th in every major offensive, and special-teams category, with the one exception of being in the top 10 team goals against average directly related due to the tremendous play of Ben Bishop. The ‘skeptic’ would point to these middle of the pack rankings in a log jammed Eastern conference, where the third and thirteenth seed are separated by a mere seven points; could mean the defending conference champs could somehow be on the outside looking in when the playoffs start in a few months if the Lightning’s uneven play continues. One of the greatest things about sports is that no matter how much hyperbole and pointless predictions ‘we’ in the media make as to whether “the Bolts are real or not”, the Lightning’s fate will be determined by their play, and not what others think of them. On that note let’s take a look at the upcoming slate for the Bolts this week:
FEBRUARY 3 VS. DETROIT
The Detroit Red Wings come into Tampa looking to break away from the log jam of the Eastern Conference playoff race. Their season has been eerily similar to the Lightning in several ways: They have identical point totals at 58, they rank near the middle of the pack in all major statistical and special teams categories, they’ve relied on solid goalie play to buoy them most of the seasons, and they had tremendous expectations from their fans and organization that they could be real contenders this year; stop me if this sounds familiar. While the playoffs are still a ways off, these inter-divisional games could prove big down the stretch with the playoff seeds likely being determined by a variety of tie-breakers. The Red Wings to their credit have dominated the Lightning this season in their two previous meetings, as well as maintain a six game winning streak at Amalie Arena dating back to last regular season and the playoffs. If the Red Wings hope to continue their success against the Bolts, they’ll need goalie Petr Mrazek to continue his phenomenal play and limit the Lightning’s sporadic offense. The young goalie is having his best season to date, allowing a mere 2.03 goals against average on the year. His strong play combined with the Red Wings propensity to get what limited offense they have from a variety of players is what has kept Detroit in the midst of the Eastern conference playoff race. The Red Wings do not have any players close to 20 goals but they do have four centers and wingers with 13+ goals on the year. The center pieces that will likely determine if Red Wings beat the Bolts, and influence their playoff chances is the immensely talented duo of Henrik Zetterberg and Dylan Larkin. Zetterberg is tied for the team lead in points, and leads the team in assists with 24; and Larkin has a tremendous +24 plus/minus half-way through the season. The Lightning will need to prevent taking unnecessary penalties to help the sluggish Red Wings offense if they hope to break Detroit’s streak at Amalie tonight.
FEBRUARY 5TH VS. PITTSBURGH The Pittsburgh Penguins will come into Amalie Arena on a four game winning streak looking to continue their climb up the Eastern Conference standings. Their lone earlier meeting with the Lightning this season saw the Penguins win a very entertaining overtime game 5-4 in Pittsburgh. The Penguins with 57 points on the year are also in that cluster of teams in the Eastern conference like the Red Wings and Lightning; where a few wins or few losses could be the difference between hosting a playoff series or preparing for the NHL Entry draft. The Penguins elite special teams is what has carried them for most of this season as they rank in the top 10 in both killing penalties and scoring when they find themselves on the power play. It comes as no surprise to anyone aware of the Penguins that their two franchise stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby lead the team in most of the major offensive categories. The big off-season acquisition of right winger Phil Kessel has been a mixed bag for the Penguins, as Kessel has provided consistent scoring but his +/- is only plus 1; indicating that despite his decent stats, he is not having much of an impact on the overall play of his line mates. The Penguins have been relatively healthy all season so it’s tough to say if they are under achieving or are just simply an average team trying to sneak into the playoffs. The ability of the Penguins to beat the Lightning will likely come down to the same player who will determine if they can make another cup run, enigmatic goal tender Marc-Andre Fleury. Penguin fans have a love/hate relationship with Fleury because he has demonstrated the ability to be a dominant shut down goalie, but can morph into a sieve at the most inopportune times leaving fans exacerbated. The fact remains Fleury is the Penguins best option in net for the foreseeable future and his ability to consistently play at a high level will likely determine how far the Penguins can go. The Bolts will look to jump on Fleury early, something they have struggled to do versus most teams this season, as he can be rattled but if he gets out of the first scoreless it could be a long evening for the Lightning offense still looking to reclaim last season’s momentum. The Bolts will head on a quick two game Canadian road trip after the Penguins game starting in Ottawa on February 8th.
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