Heading into the New Year, Tampa Bay Lightning fans had likely come to terms with their team’s most reliable trait: inconsistency. However, suddenly once the ball dropped signaling the arrival of 2016, the high-scoring and aggressive Eastern Conference champion Bolts team from the previous season awoke from their slumber to rattle off five consecutive victories; three of which came on the close of their recent west coast road trip. Several factors such as finally getting healthy, getting some lucky bounces (or skates) that have eluded them on the ice previously, along with the recent absence of a disgruntled youngster; have all helped spark this recent win streak making Tampa the hottest team in the Eastern Conference. This week, will see the Lightning playing three games, two at home, and one on the road; all of which carry their own specific tests as to whether this club is back to being a legitimate contender or if they revert back to their wildly inconsistent play that has plagued them throughout the 2015-2016.
JANUARY 19 VS. EDMONTON
The Edmonton Oilers are tied for last place in the Western Conference yet are only a mere four games below .500 on the season. Their porous defense and inability to find consistent scoring has caused them to have the worst goal differential (minus 21) in the conference. However, after dropping four straight, the first of which started against this very Bolts team culminated in a January 14th shootout loss the San Jose Sharks; the Oilers have rattled off two consecutive wins against the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers, and are in the midst of a three game road trip coming into Tampa tonight. Despite being having the goal differential and sitting at the bottom of the standings they are only a mere six points out of the final western playoff spot with almost half a season of hockey yet to play. The Oilers offense revolves around left-winger Taylor Hall with his team high 45 points on the year and as the Oilers find their offensive options limited having only four other players barely with double digit goals. The Oilers rely on Hall to generate most of their offensive chances, so if they are to be effective against a Bolts team that has multiple lines that can score, Hall will have to likely score himself or at least facilitate the scoring. Edmonton goalie Cam Talbot rebounded from a brutal October to become a decent every day starter for the Oilers; he’s inspired enough confidence within the organization that the Oilers recently gave him a three-year extension two days ago, signifying they have found their goalie for the foreseeable future. For the Oilers to get a win in Tampa they’ll likely need to drag the game into the mud and hope to grind out a Bolts team that wants to play fast but has been susceptible to physical teams who want to mix it up this season.
JANUARY 21 VS. CHICAGO
The Chicago Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup Champions. The Chicago Blackhawks are in the midst of an eleven game winning streak (that is not a typo). The Chicago Blackhawks are still very good at hockey. Laying out all of the statistics that make Chicago a great team would be a frivolous endeavor, just know they lead the Western Conference in points and goal differential; they are doing this despite losing key free agents, and their biggest star Patrick Kane is having an MVP like season despite going through an incident this off-season that may have prevented him from ever taking the ice again. It looks as if nothing can derail this Blackhawks team from defending their cup again this year; yet if the Lightning are looking for a measuring stick to see if they are in fact ‘real’ contenders once again; how they perform against this Blackhawks’ club should provide those answers Lightning fans have searched for all season.
JANUARY 23 @ FLORIDA
The Florida Panthers have been the biggest surprise of this NHL season which just passed the half way mark. They lead the Atlantic division which in its own right is surprising as most pundits had them pegged for a fringe playoff team at best prior to the start of the season. The most surprising aspect of the Panthers ascent however is who has been responsible for their great record: A 43 year old skating hall of famer right-winger Jaromir Jagr leads the team in points and twice cast off 36 year old net minder Roberto Luongo leads the Panthers stingy defensive team which ranks in the top five in goals against. They rattled off an impressive twelve game win streak that started in 2015 and ended in the second week of 2016. They led the division by as many as 10 points only a few weeks ago, but a recent four game losing streak has begun to bring the Panthers back to the rest of the Atlantic division. The Panthers are never going to overwhelm you with offensive fire power, they prefer to let Luongo break your spirit in net, and let Jagr & center Jonathan Huberdeau grind you into mistakes that they’ll make you pay for. If the Lightning, wish to regain their contender status by winning the Atlantic division, beating a Panthers team on the road that is standing in their way is a good start to that goal. The Lightning will follow-up their quick road trip against the Panthers with a three game home stand next week.
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