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Don't Underestimate the Tampa Bay Lightning

No matter if they play the Leafs or Hurricanes, the Lightning will be favored in many circles. When you win two Cups in a row, you earn that status of being a favorite.

Nothing is cemented quite yet in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. But it will be by this time tomorrow. And no matter how things shake out, the fastest, most-talented first-round series is going to involve the back-to-back, defending Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

As it stands early Friday, the Bolts occupy third place in the Atlantic Division. They’re one point ahead of the Boston Bruins, with both Tampa and Boston having one regular-season game left. If Boston beats Toronto tonight – and with the Leafs resting many key players, that’s a real possibility – the Bruins will overtake Tampa Bay for third, and push the Lightning into the first wild card berth.

So, that means the Lightning will play the Maple Leafs in Round One, or they’ll play the Atlantic-Division-champion Carolina Hurricanes. Either way, you’re looking at a showdown that will be as swift and skilled as any in this post-season.

If Boston gets one point or more against the Leafs, and Tampa doesn’t beat the New York Islanders tonight, the Lightning will slide into the first wild card position, and they’ll take on the Hurricanes. That might be the fastest of any potential playoff opponent for Tampa Bay in the first round. Carolina’s group of forwards – led by slick center Sebastian Aho, Russian sniper Andrei Svechnikov, and veteran Teuvo Teravainen – don’t get the credit they deserve for being as fast and dangerous as they are. The Bolts have a great defense corps, but the Canes will take them to their limit with waves of pushes into the offensive zone.

Also, the Hurricanes' defense corps would be a threat to the Lightning`s well-being. Star blueliner Jaccob Slavin and solid minute-munchers Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei can keep control of the puck at both ends of the arena, and their top-six blueliners have generated 193 points. Tampa star goalie Andrei Vasilyevskiy is going to be tested time and again by Carolina`s offensive game plan..

But that brings us to Carolina’s potential achilles heel: their netminding. Starter Frederik Andersen has been first-rate all season, but he’s currently dealing with a lower-body injury that’s kept him sidelined since April 16. Andersen may miss the beginning of the first round, which would give Tampa a huge advantage between the pipes. You always know you’ll get a banner performance from Vasilyevskiy; you won’t know what you’re getting from Hurricanes No. 2 goalie Antti Raanta, who has posted a save percentage of 900 or lower in five of his past eight games.

Similarly, a showdown with the Maple Leafs would feature speed from both Toronto and Tampa Bay. The Leafs’ top line of Auston Matthews centering fellow star Mitch Marner and (perhaps) agitating winger Michael Bunting has been one of the most dominant in the league this season, and Toronto has arguably the best one-through-six defense corps in the Eastern Conference. But here again, the Lightning hold a notable advantage when it comes to goaltending. Leafs starter Jack Campbell has had a yo-yo-type season, and if he falters early in the first round, Toronto’s backup, rookie Erik Kallgren, will be playing his first-ever NHL playoff games.

No matter if they play the Leafs or Hurricanes – both of whom have better regular-season marks than they do – the Lightning will be favored in many circles. When you win two Cups in a row, you earn that status of being a favorite. The Maple Leafs and Hurricanes both have set new team records standings-wise this season, but that means very little when you’re tasked with knocking off a team that knows how to win it all.



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