Apr 22, 2014; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his goal against Montreal Canadiens with teammates during the third period in game four of the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning are This Close to Competing for the Stanley Cup

First of all, let me congratulate the Los Angeles Kings for winning the 2014 Stanley Cup. While I am at it, I want to point out that the Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks are the teams that are looking down at the rest of the NHL world.

Since 2010, four of the five Stanley Cup Championships have been won by those two teams. This year, in the Western Conference Finals, those two battled it out, and gave us arguably the best playoff series in a year that gave us best NHL playoffs in recent memory.

So, well done Kings and ‘Hawks. Well done, indeed. Since the strong argument can be made that these two teams are the cream that has risen in the NHL, I want to compare where the Tampa Bay Lightning are with these two. In doing this, I want to start with looking back at last season.

I have said before that anyone outside the Lightning organization who thought they were going to make the playoffs is fooling themselves. Most people thought the team would be battling to stay out of the cellar. Then after a surprisingly good start, 12-4 in the first 16 games, including three OT winners and 2 shootout victories, it all came crashing down, literally.

In a Veterans Day matinee in Boston, Steven Stamkos crashed into the goalpost and broke his leg. Seeing Stammer writhe in pain, you knew this was a bad break (no pun intended) not only for him, but for the team. In the end, Stamkos missed 45 games. More than half the season. Yet this team persevered. They kept winning games. They found ways to win games. They won enough that they came in second place in the newly formed Atlantic Division.

They were such a young team that maybe these “kids” were naïve, perhaps even ignorant of the way things are supposed to be in the NHL. You aren’t supposed to contend for the playoffs when your superstar is lost for more than half the season. Maybe ignorance is bliss afterall.

They finished with 101 points. All without Stamkos for 45 games. With a goaltender who was playing as the #1 goalie for the first time in his NHL career. With a Captain who begged for and was granted his wish to be traded out of town. All with so many new and young faces on the roster who apparently didn’t know they weren’t supposed to win. Their 101 points was 1 point better than the Stanley Cup Champs – LA Kings and only 6 points behind the reigning champs –Chicago Blackhawks.

Comparing how this young group of players held their own with the big boys in the NHL, against the final four teams battling for the Cup (Chicago, LA, NY Rangers and Montreal) the Bolts were 8-3 against these teams in the regular season. Against all the playoff teams by conference the Lightning also held their own – against Eastern Conference Playoff teams, they finished 13-12. Against Western Conference playoff teams, they were 8-8 in the regular season.  Not bad against the teams that had the only chance to win this year’s Stanley Cup!

Jun 13, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Stanley Cup to the Los Angeles Kings after game five of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final against the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

They had so many young guys on the roster. They were the fifth youngest team in the NHL last season with an average age of 24.6 years. No doubt the future here looks bright.

As we close out the 2013-2014 NHL season, Bolts Nation should be anticipating next year with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Ben Bishop are running point on Offense, Defense and between the pipes. The oldest being Bishop at 27. Heddy and Stammer are both 24. Doesn’t it seem like they’ve been around forever?

Add to the big three: Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat – both were co-finalists for Rookie of the Year. Then don’t forget about Valterri Filppula, Alex Killorn, Richard Panik, Teddy Purcell and Nate Thompson from the Forwards and Radko Gudus, Mark Barberio and Matt Carle on Defense and you start to get some goose bumps.

Then comes the next wave of youngsters: J.T. Brown, Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin on Offense and Andre Sustr and Slater Koekkoek on Defense and admit it, your mouth is watering for next season to be here already. I know mine is.

The Lightning are right now $16.5 million below the salary cap. If Ryan Malone is the player the team buys out, it will free another $4.5 million for a total of over $21 million available for the free agency period. My money is on Steve Yzerman. He’ll know just the right players to bring in to mix with the abundance of young, productive players.

It is a great time to be a Lightning fan. It feels like, oh, I don’t know….2002, maybe 2003. We all know what happened in 2004. It feels like that kind of year. Let me be the first to say it for the 2014-2015 season. GO BOLTS!

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Tags: NHL Stanley Cup Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning

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