The Tampa Bay Lightning are once again challenging for the Atlantic division as the NHL’s final quarter of games begins. Tampa’s offense which has been the main reason for their current six game winning streak; suddenly resembles the overwhelming attack that led them to the Stanley Cup finals last year, and less like the erratic inconsistent mess that has troubled them throughout most of the first half of this season. During this recent six game stretch, the Bolts are averaging 4.00 goals a game, while the goalie tandem of Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy have held up their end as well keeping opponents to a paltry 1.83 goals against. It’s no coincidence that the return of Tampa’s offense has coincided with a six game goal streak from their captain Steven Stamkos, who looks to have the weight of the world removed from his shoulders after the Lightning informed the rest of the league Stamkos would not be traded at the deadline. Tampa is already halfway through their current four game road trip, and will be look to continue their ascent in the standings as the Atlantic division has essentially become a four team race between: Florida, Tampa Bay, Boston, and Detroit. This week, the Lightning will face two teams that are fighting for their playoff lives, and one team who is hoping to land the number one pick in the draft. Here is a breakdown of this week’s opponents:
FEBRUARY 29 @ TORONTO The Toronto Maple Leafs organizations likely have their sights set on June 24th 2016, and not February 29th. The date in June is more significant because the Leafs season has been over for several weeks now. When June 24th rolls around Toronto hopes to have the number one overall pick in the NHL entry draft as they attempt to rebuild their proud franchise for what feels like the fourth or fifth time in the last decade; a loss to the Lightning will help towards that goal. The league likes to pretend “tanking” does not occur, but only the truly naïve could see Toronto trading their best goaltender and other meaningful veteran pieces at the trade dead line for not much in return as anything other than giving up on the season. Typically teams trade veterans to free up playing time for young prospects, but the Leafs have continued to not call up several prospects like T.J. Brennan, Mark Arcobello, and Brendan Leipsic who despite playing very well in the AHL cannot find a roster spot on a team berthed of talent and ranking near dead last in the league every meaningful offensive and defensive category. The team the Leafs will put on the ice will look to grind the smaller Bolts team if they can manage to slow Tampa’s forwards down. However, if the Lightning are truly serious about winning the Atlantic division, they should jump all over a very poor Toronto team that knows their season ended a few months ago.
MARCH 3 @ OTTAWA The Ottawa Senators season was slipping away around Valentine’s day after a bad 4-2 loss to the lowly Columbus Bluejackets, but after winning five of their last six games the playoffs are suddenly a possibility again for a Canadian team. The Senators have always been able to score goals, but it has been their inability to keep their opponents from scoring them too, that has been their biggest issue this season. Goalie Craig Anderson’s recent stretch of solid play has given them the stability in net they’ve been lacking all year, and allowing them to start thinking about the playoffs again. The three previous meetings with the Lightning this year have all been blowouts, two in Tampa’s favor and one for Ottawa. The Senators will look to jump on the Lightning early and test Tampa’s new-found offense to see if they can keep pace with a Senators team that can score in bunches once they get going. The Lightning will look to keep Ottawa under the three goal mark, as the Senators have only won two games in their last 15 where they’ve only scored three or less goals. They do not appear to have the defense necessary to win tight low scoring games so whether it’s Bishop or Vasilevskiy in net for Tampa they can dramatically increase the Bolts chances of winning with a solid performance between the pipes.
MARCH 5 vs CAROLINA The Carolina Hurricanes are not technically out of the Eastern conference playoff race, but with the recent trades of veteran pieces: Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg, and John Michael Liles, it is to take them seriously about trying to sneak into the playoffs, even if they could. The Hurricanes elected to take back lots of draft picks and prospects for several of the key contributors they traded away. Moves like these are generally a signal to your fan base that you have begun to look towards next year and not pursuing the Stanley Cup this year. Mike Skinner and Jordan Staal will still look to give the Lightning problems on the offensive end of the ice, and if the Hurricanes can get a good performance out of goalie Cam Ward, who has previously been a thorn in the Lightning’s side, they will look to hurt Tampa’s chances of winning the Atlantic division. The Tampa Bay Lightning will look to force a now undermanned Carolina club to skate with their depth of wings and centers giving the Lighting the ability to score with all four lines.
Useless Prediction for the Week: The Bolts should thoroughly hammer this tanking Toronto team extending their winning streak to seven games. I think they could potentially stumble in the final game of their four game road trip against a Senators team that can put up some goals against even the best teams in the league but should still manage to get at least a point against Ottawa. The game against Carolina could be in for a test against their old South Eastern division rival but good teams win at home against non-playoff teams, and the Lightning should close the week out with a win. My useless prediction this week has the Bolts going (2-0-1) & getting 5 points.
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