Any concerns about the Tampa Bay Lightning getting off to a slow start after the NHL All-Star break, were quickly put to bed after the Bolts beat two potential Eastern conference playoff foes (Red Wings and Penguins) extending their current winning streak to three games. The Lighting are also riding a dominant 10-1-0 stretch over their last 11 games, making them look much more like the team that was in the Stanley Cup final last year, and less like the team who seemed unsure who it was to start this season. Tampa will have no time to admire their recent accomplishments however, as the NHL schedule makers slated them to play four games in the next seven days, two of which will come on the road and all against potential playoff teams. The tough scheduling quirk of four games in seven days makes the idea of Tampa getting four points out of a possible eight seem like a realistic goal for the week. In an Eastern conference that continues to look like it will come down the final games to decide who is in and out of the playoffs; it is important for the Lightning to lose as little ground as possible if they hope to challenge for the division and more importantly stave off flirting with falling completely out of the playoffs all together. Any faltering where a few losses are strung together could quickly put Tampa back on the outside looking in. . Let’s take a look at the four clubs the Bolts will play this week, and how the they match-up against them:
FEBRUARY 8 @ OTTAWA The Ottawa Senators are on the tail end of what most people would consider part of the Eastern Conference playoff contention, as they sit five points back from the current 8th seeded Penguins. This “not quite out of it yet” designation hides the fact that Ottawa isn’t a very good hockey team; in fact if it wasn’t for their top 10 goals per game offense they might be one of two worst teams in the league. They rank dead last in goals against with a dreadful 3.1 goals allowed per game, combined with the worst penalty kill in the league, and a power play that ranks in the bottom third despite being a team that can score pretty effectively. Fortunately for Ottawa they do have a strong set of goal scorers which have buoyed their weak defensive and special teams play throughout the season. The Senators have eight players with double-digit goals scored giving them effectively three lines that can generate offense anytime they are on the ice. The Senators offense centers around their breakout star left winger Mike Hoffman who after putting up his career best season last year with 27 goals and 21 assists, has followed it up with an even better year as he as already totaled 23 goals and 18 assists with almost a half of a season to play. Hoffman’s emergence combined with stud defenseman Erik Karlsson quarterbacking the Senators offense, has allowed them to essentially keep pace with teams despite not having good defensive play from their net-minders. The Senators look to overwhelm teams with their scoring and hope they can win games 4-3 and 5-4; so look for them to press a Bolts team who has struggled with getting off to good starts with early pressure and lots of shots on goal. If the Lightning can get an early lead against the Senators, they might be able to overwhelm Ottawa and win in a blowout; but the Senators have enough offensive talent that no lead is safe. How Jon Cooper chooses to match-up Tampa’s lines and defensive pairings tonight will be critical factor in deciding the outcome of the game.
FEBRUARY 9TH @ MONTREAL The Montreal Canadiens hope their recent two game winning streak is a sign of things to come; as many of their fans feel like they are waking up from a bad dream in which they saw their early season dominant league leading team plummet down the standings, where they now sit as the 10th best teaming the Eastern Conference and no playoffs if the season were to end today. Since starting the season on a nine game winning streak the Canadiens have been seven games under .500 on the year, and as the sample size gets bigger, it appears they are a very pedestrian club that just got very hot to start the year, and as the season continues to unfold they have begun to reflect the very average team their statistics show them to be. The only team statistical category in which the Canadiens rank in the top 10 is their Penalty Kill, every other offensive, defensive, and special teams category has them 13th to 20th which is hardly in line with the top teams of the Eastern conference. The Canadiens have struggled to find a second dynamic scorer that many of the top Eastern contenders poessess to compliment left winger Max Pacioretty and his 20 goals on the season. While Alex Galchenyuk continues to grow into the young center Montreal hopes he would be when they drafted him third overall four years ago, but he is not quite able to provide the scoring impact necessary of a second star for a contender. The biggest issue Montreal has had to deal with is the injury to their rock in the crease Carey Price; with rumors swirling about his inability to return this season, the Habs have been forced to rely on Mike Condon who has been serviceable but is definitely not the caliber of Carey Price. The Lightning will look to push the pace against a bigger but slower Montreal team who will likely attempt to use their fore-check to slow Tampa’s speed and turn the game in to a slow grinding affair. If the Lightning can keep themselves out of the penalty box and get to Condon early, it will give them a chance to get a point or two on their second road game of a back to back.
FEBRUARY 12TH vs. NASHVILLE The Nashville Predators will await the Lightning as they return home from their brief road trip, as they find themselves in the midst of their own playoff scramble in the Western conference. Nashville’s season has been similar to the Lightning’s in that they have seen wild swings of winning and losing leaving their fans confused as to what kind of team they have. They rank near the middle of the pack for nearly every conceivable metric but have still managed to be in the thick of the playoff race, now with the 6th seed in the West they are looking to find some consistency in their scoring and defensive units if they hope to hold on to or improve their playoff positioning. James Neal, Shea Weber, and Filip Forsberg have provided the scoring for Nashville but with the exception of Neal most of Nashville’s top lines have even or negative +/-’s on the year, which has led to up and down season. Pekka Rinne has played okay with a 2.5 goals against average, but he has not been the dominant force in net he was last season that saw him win 41 games and maintain a 2.18 goals against average and he already has as many losses this season through 20 fewer games this year. Nashville will look to get a Lightning team who can at times take sloppy penalties spend some time in the box to give their solid power play a chance to work, along with using their size advantage to push around the smaller Bolts team. Tampa will look to take advantage of Nashville’s mediocre penalty kill unit if they can get the extra attacker as well as force a team struggling to find consistent scoring to keep pace with them as long as they can solve Pekka Rinne early in the game.
FEBRUARY 14TH vs ST LOUIS The final game of the week looks to be the Lightning’s toughest test as the St Louis Blues will come to Tampa looking to keep pace with the other top contenders in the Western conference. The Blues have carved out an identity that works for them; as a tough physical team with excellent goaltending, and phenomenal special teams that will make you pay if give them the extra attacker. Many teams look for a single goaltender they can rely on to carry their club but the Blues have seemingly managed to find two in Jake Allen and Brian Elliott both of whom have goals against averages under 2.18 ranking them both in the top 10 in the league. Right winger Vladimir Tarasenko continues his barrage of goals on the league as he now ranks fifth overall with 26 goals on the season, and accounts for nearly 20% of the Blues total goals on the year. Unfortunately the Blues have struggled find another consistent scorer outside of Tarasenko and Alexander Steen which leaves them vulnerable against teams that find ways to score against their excellent defense. The Lightning will have their hands full but they cannot wait for the Blues to make a mistake if they intend to beat the Blues. St Louis will be happy to play a 1-0 or 2-1 game which Ben Bishop and company can certainly win, but would prefer a higher scoring affair. The biggest key for the Lightning if they hope to get a point or two is to stay out of the penalty box as the Blues top 10 power play unit could potentially give the Blues the only offense they need to get a win versus Tampa. A fully engaged, disciplined, and willingness to shoot at will effort will be required from the Lightning if they hope to close the week out with a win.
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