Finally, Tampa Bay Lightning hockey is set to return to us. It has been a brutal wait for me. As much as I enjoy Olympic hockey, it is a poor substitute for my Bolts and their never-ending pursuit of the postseason and another Stanley Cup.
As we prepare, and wait a bit more, for Thursday’s away game in Nashville against the Predators, I thought now would be as good a time as any, with 24 games remaining on the schedule, to delve into the Eastern Conference (and most especially into the Atlantic Division) and breakdown who the real threats are of stopping our beloved Lightning from making the playoffs.
Now just before the Olympic break, we saw two teams catch up to Tampa Bay, with only one point separating the Bolts (who are currently in second place in the Atlantic with 71 points) from Montreal (70) and Toronto (70), who occupy third and fourth place, respectively. Even Detroit (64) isn’t too far out of striking distance.
So yeah, things have suddenly gotten tight in the Lightning’s division, but do any of these teams have the momentum required to unseat the Bolts from the top of the division, after sitting at number two in the Atlantic for the majority of the season?
Here are my thoughts on each Atlantic Division opponent and how much of a threat I feel they are to the Lightning during the playoff push. Then I will follow up with some thoughts on the Metropolitan Division.
Boston Bruins: Boston (7-1-2 in last ten) is pretty much on their own island at this point in the season, at least as far as the division is concerned. With 78 points, good enough to lead the Atlantic, are they catch-able? Yes, I believe they are. But the Bolts will need to string some wins together, and fast, if they mean to equal the Mighty Bears and retake the division before the season wraps up. I personally think this SHOULD be the Lightning’s mantra going into these final 24 games. I think if they focused their eyes firmly on the Bruins’ back and worked to catch up to them in points, they’d more than keep themselves in the playoff hunt. As far as head-to-head goes, the Bolts have lost all three match-ups this year so far to Boston, including the infamous game that saw Steven Stamkos break his leg. With one more game between Tampa Bay and Boston left to go in the season series on March 8 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, it will help, and show the extent to which this Lightning team has grown, if they win that game and started the footrace that will be these final 24 games of the regular season off right.
Montreal Canadiens: After Tampa Bay won a 2-1 OT decision in Montreal on Feb. 1, the Habs (5-4-1 last ten) went on a three-game tear starting on Feb. 4: beating the Flames, the Canucks, and the Hurricanes before the Olympic break; passing the Bolts briefly on Feb. 8 with 70 points before the Lightning won the same night, maybe twenty minutes later, against Detroit to regain the one-point advantage in the Atlantic standings. It is true that Montreal has put together a good enough run in January and the opening games of February to catch up to Bolts, but can they maintain it? The Habs face steep Eastern Conference opponents early on as the season continues after the Olympics (Red Wings, Penguins) only to hit the road against the toughest division in the league: the Pacific. With games against the Kings, Ducks, Coyotes and the Sharks, one after another; Montreal will have a task ahead of itself if it means to keep tallying the points and staying close to Tampa Bay. But much like the Lightning’s March and April match-ups, things get a deal softer towards the end. If the Habs can muscle out some wins over the next few difficult weeks they could be pesky till the end, but it is a very tall order in my opinion.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs put together a small little winning streak before the break, winning two games (one of which was against the Lightning), and much like the Habs, moved ahead of the Bolts in the Atlantic standings, if only briefly. Toronto (7-2-1 last ten) has some softer games, intermixed with some tough trips on the road (like Montreal, against the Pacific Division). The Leafs are in a similar scenario as Montreal, not just in points and proximity to the Bolts, but in soft, then hard (Blues and Bruins on Mar. 25 and April 3, respectively, should be nettlesome), then soft again as far as strength of schedule remaining. Between the two teams I would give Toronto credit as the most dangerous team on Tampa Bay’s heels, in my opinion, and I feel they have executed the best play of late to be a deep threat in the last 24 games. If the Leafs continue to mimic their solid play of January throughout the playoff push, and the Bolts fumble their opportunities to stack points, it could very well be Toronto overtaking second place in the Atlantic, and keeping it.
Detroit Red Wings: Now the obvious story line concerning the Wings and the Bolts this year is how well the Lightning has handled the franchise, winning all four match-ups so far, with only one win left to go (Mar. 30) for a season-series sweep. And with the Red Wings back in fifth place (64 points) in the Atlantic you could argue they are out of hostile range of Tampa Bay. And you could be right. But I’m not so sure. Detroit (5-3-2 last ten) lost their last game before the break (to the Bolts as it stands) but when it is set to resume the season on Feb. 26 against divisional rival Montreal, the Red Wings have enough soft games mixed up with hard opponents to compile the points required to be back in the mix quick and in a hurry. Tampa Bay may be able to handle Detroit easily enough (as the regular season has surely suggested) if they are to meet in the early rounds of the playoffs, but Detroit is more than capable of going on a run and pulling closer to the Bolts before, and if, that happens. They’ll just have work that much harder to get in that position. And they do currently hold a wild card spot, so that goes in their favor, and can be used as momentum, to see them through the rest of their schedule.
Ottawa Senators: With Ottawa (5-3-2 last ten) only one point behind Detroit (63 points), you could conceivably give the Sens the same odds, based on placement, but I don’t think so. Despite amassing the same record as the Wings in their last ten games, the Sens are the far more inconsistent team, as they have been all year, and I feel those trademarks will continue on in these final games during the playoff push. Look to see the Red Wings separate from Ottawa early.
Florida Panthers: Not a chance. 4-6-0 last ten. Two-game losing streak before the break. Seventh place in the division with 51 points. The Bolts will see them once more, on Mar. 13, and a win will clinch a series sweep and the newly minted Governor’s Cup.
Buffalo Sabres: And even less of a threat than the Panthers. Four-game losing streak at the break. 2-7-1 last ten. Last place in the division with 38 points. Says it all.
Now on to the Metro. Next to battling some of these teams in a possible playoff berth, the biggest threat, directly, to the Bolts, if necessary, is who in the Metro will be battling for the two wild card spots. Right now those spots are firmly in Atlantic hands (Maple Leafs, Red Wings) but several fringe Metro teams, on the bubble, are looking very good at taking one, if not both, of those WC spots before the season’s end.
Pittsburgh is on another planet. First in the Metro and in the East with 83 points. The New York Rangers have turned their season around and currently sit comfortably in second place (67 points) with another turnaround team, the Philadelphia Flyers, sitting in just behind them in third place with 66 points.
Now we get to the big WC threats from the Metro. For me, it’s the Columbus Blue Jackets, who sit in fourth place with 63 points. The Jackets put together an eight-game winning streak in January to single-handily propel themselves into the conversation and I look to see them continuing those efforts during the playoff push, if not outright taking a top-three spot from the Rangers or the Flyers. Tied with the Jackets in fifth place are the Washington Capitals, who despite having the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin have struggled with winning consistency all year (though still have had the Bolts’ number all year as well). I see the Caps falling back in the standings while other, better, teams start catching up and moving away. Unlike the Atlantic, the Metro has a much closer race for the top-three in the division, as well as for a WC spot. Carolina sits in sixth place with 61 points, while New Jersey holds onto seventh by the same number. The Devils are a far better team than their record would suggest, and I wouldn’t count them out from pulling closer to the top-three, or at the very least a WC spot (which could be troublesome for the Bolts who have yet to beat the Devils this year). Only the New York Islanders are truly out of the mix with 52 points. And after losing star captain John Tavares in the Olympics to a season-ending injury, the comeback trail doesn’t look much brighter despite a stellar run in December and much of January to get back into competition.
So, to me, the Metro currently has Columbus and Washington as real threats for the WC spots, if not pushing someone like the Flyers or the Rangers, who are one slumpy breakdown from leaving the two spots firmly in Atlantic hands, but mostly just the Blue Jackets. Watch out for them.
Off the Dot is an ongoing column of opinions, feelings and thoughts on all things Tampa Bay Lightning. This is a knee-jerk reaction column for the many things that a fan maybe feels or thinks throughout a hockey season. This is NOT a stat by stat analysis of the Bolts, but rather a theater of words concerning the Lightning and the many emotions tangled up in supporting your favorite NHL team; a theater for all fans to come to for a more personal take on Tampa Bay hockey. That’s why I call it “off the dot”. Because if we were “on the dot”, as in face-off mode, well, things would be decidedly more on-point and specific. While off the dot, while we’re still just milling around the face-off circle, as I am now, waiting for the whistle to blow, then we’re just being conversational. We’re just talking about our thoughts on strategy maybe or whatever random concept happens to come to mind, needing to be expressed. The fun off-key banter of fans before someone (whoever) decides to hunker down, spread out their skates, and get nose-deep over the dot for the real face-off, and maybe say, statistically speaking, what happened in a win or loss in their more researched opinion. And we have those articles all over Bolts by the Bay, and I very much encourage you to check out those articles, too. These are just my opinions, my feelings, and my thoughts – while we’re off the dot.