The Tampa Bay Lightning are checking off a lot of boxes these days. The Bolts came into the playoffs as one of the top threats in the East, but as we know the post-season is full of pitfalls. While it seems unfair, for example, either the Jets or the Predators are going to remember 2018 as the year they ‘only’ got to the second round.
By beating the Boston Bruins on Sunday, the Lightning have already clinched a spot in the conference final. In our Playoff Preview issue, we predicted Tampa Bay to be a Stanley Cup finalist, with the proviso that Boston or Toronto would put up a stiff challenge in the second round (what can I say? I love to hedge…).
As it turns out, the Bruins didn’t put up much of a barrier in Round 2. Tampa Bay waxed the B’s in just five games, using speed and skill to expose a Boston team that was rather top-heavy when the going got tough. Had defenseman Torey Krug been healthy, perhaps the Bruins would have been able to extend the series, but this is the playoffs and injuries can come at the worst times.
Which brings me to a very crucial point regarding Tampa Bay: the Bolts are remarkably healthy heading into the conference final. They got rest between the first two rounds thanks to their easy disposal of New Jersey and that carried over against Boston. Now, they await the winner of Pittsburgh and Washington, two teams that are both skilled, but already showing signs of wear and tear.
The Capitals, for instance, don’t have Andre Burakovsky right now, while Nicklas Backstrom is obviously playing while banged up. Toss in a ‘D’ corps that isn’t exactly deep and Washington will have an uphill battle against the Bolts.
Pittsburgh’s no better off. Evgeni Malkin is playing, but missed three post-season games earlier on due to a leg injury. Is he 100 percent? Key defenseman Brian Dumoulin is in the same boat after that big shot he took from Tom Wilson in the Washington series. What are the after-effects of that hit? Obviously we won’t know the full extent of anyone’s status until their playoffs are done, but we know guys will play through almost anything. Zach Aston-Reese may not have been a crucial member of the Penguins, but he’s out with a Wilson-induced broken jaw nonetheless. It all adds up, particularly for a Pittsburgh team that doesn’t have much of a pipeline right now (all that winning tends to have that effect).
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has been able to relatively cruise through without over-taxing its top end. No Lightning players are in the top-10 for average time in these playoffs, with defenseman Victor Hedman coming in 11th at 26:08 per game. Fellow blueliners Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman are the only other Bolts averaging more than 20 minutes and neither are above 23 per contest. Heck, Brayden Point is leading the team’s forwards in ice time (18:56), but with the way he’s been playing, the youngster has earned it.
What I’m trying to say is that Tampa’s vaunted depth will continue to be a strength, while that of their next opponent’s will dwindle. I’m not saying the Lightning have an easy path to the Cup final, but they are putting themselves in a great position to succeed.
Tampa Bay is a fast team that can burn an opponent by cashing in chances, even if they give up a few in the process. That equation doesn’t work if you’re tired and prone to mistakes, but the Lightning have been pretty good at quelling their own giveaways so far, while also putting up the best possession numbers of any team in the post-season. So it’s working. The question from here on out, is can they ride it all the way to a title?