From Hardship to Championship? Lightning Set Eyes on Deep Playoff Run
Riley G Wilson
BarnBurner Sports Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2020
While this is an unprecedented and unorthodox Stanley Cup Playoffs, there's no doubt the Tampa Bay Lightning have more than enough motivation, considering what happened last season. The Bolts were swept in the first round of last year's postseason, as the President's Trophy winners, by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
That series was an atrocity for the Lightning, and something they surely want to rectify this year, considering Jan Rutta was the only Tampa Bay player with a positive rating in the series. So, naturally, even in an exhibition game, the Bolts wanted to put the pedal to the metal.
In their first and only exhibition tilt, the Lightning looked like a team capable of making a deep run this season. Not to mention, they were missing captain Steven Stamkos and Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman for their game against the Florida Panthers.
The stars shone bright in this one for Tampa Bay, with Brayden Point opening the scoring and adding a second to make it 2-0 Bolts. He and Nikita Kucherov, who added two of his own, combined with Ondrej Palat for ten points in the game. Luke Schenn added a fifth in a 5-0 rout of Florida.
You could say that performance was exactly what the Lightning needed, but you may be wrong. It's certainly a positive, but it wouldn't hurt to see that success translate into a game that counts, either. Nonetheless, a good start for a team on a mission.
With that in mind, let's delve into the Bolts' schedule, and break down their round-robin matchups in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Monday, August 3: Washington Capitals
This is a troubling matchup for Tampa Bay to kick off their round-robin schedule. Not only due to the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetzov and TJ Oshie, but also because beating the Caps has been a tall task for the Lightning for years, in both the playoffs and the regular season.
This year's season series against Washington was a disaster for Tampa Bay. The Caps won all three contests, two of them by at least a two-goal margin.
This is a matchup of offensive riches, and defensive depth. Washington's plethora of weapons doesn't stop with the dynamic aforementioned trio. They also possess the likes of Tom Wilson, Ilya Kovalchuk and Niklas Backstrom, none of whom are strangers to putting the puck in the net.
On the back-end, Tampa Bay matches up well. They've grown immensely defensively over the past few seasons, with the development of blossoming young blue-liner Mikhail Sergachev, and the additions of former St. Louis Blue Kevin Shattenkirk and veteran Zach Bogosion.
This game could very well come down to goaltending, and there's no shortage of talent in either cage. If Andrei Vasilevskiy or Braden Holtby can play their best after a long pause, they might just be the difference.
Wednesday, August 5: Boston Bruins
This is a much more favourable matchup for the Lightning. They've had the Bruins' number in the playoffs of late, and owned them this year in the regular season, winning three of the four meetings.
Goaltending once again will be crucial, as if there's a game in the round robin in which Andrei Vasilevskiy might be outmatched, this has the potential to be that game. Tuukka Rask, a Vezina finalist this season, was a key cog in the B's run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Again, motivation will be paramount, as both teams are itching to get back to winning hockey, considering, obviously, what happened to Tampa Bay last season, but also Boston coming one game away from hoisting Lord Stanley's grail last June.
Matchups will be interesting in this game, as every team's mission in playing the Bruins is to shut down 'The Perfection Line' of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron. It will be intriguing to see if Jon Cooper fires back with a line of Steven Stamkos (if healthy), Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, a trio he's experimented with, or tries to play the depth game and outmatch Boston's lower lines.
Saturday, August 8: Philadelphia Flyers
Speaking of favourable matchups, this is the most appealing game on the Lightning's round-robin schedule. Tampa Bay has simply owned the Flyers, taking both tilts between the two teams this year, and winning the last seven meetings stretching back beyond this season.
Carter Hart, in net for Philadelphia, could be a difference-maker in this game. He had a breakout season in Philly, but lacks playoff experience. Vasilevskiy will have to hope that's the difference, and that he can outduel Hart in this contest.
Philadelphia has a dangerous top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier, but their third line of Joel Farabee, Derek Grant and Tyler Pitlick shouldn't strike too much fear into Tampa's eyes, considering they can counter with two solid deadline additions in Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, centred by Tyler Johnson.
Defensively, the Flyers are nearly on par with the Bolts. This game, despite recent history, is an even matchup that will come down to execution.
Time to dance
With all the speculation said and done, it's put-up or shut-up for this Lightning team. The talent is there, and despite misconceptions, the Lightning are no strangers to deep playoff pushes, even recently. So, in a unique, never-before-seen playoff format, and a year where nothing seems to go as planned, wouldn't it be too fitting for a team nobody believes in to walk away with the Cup? The Lightning certainly hope so.