Watch out for the Tampa Bay Lightning in this years playoffs. The casual hockey fan that does not realize the ability of the Tampa Bay Lightning or just does not see them as a Stanley Cup Contender, will be educated in just a few weeks time. After a disappointing sweep by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1st round last season, the Lightning are entering this years playoffs a much more confident and playoff ready group. The team is poised for a deep run with their goaltending, offensive depth, and veteran leadership. The blueline is not as strong as other contenders, but the Tampa Bay Lightning as a group are extremely hardworking and can make up for not being deep on the back end. Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are two key players for Tampa Bay in this years playoffs. I will not be surprised if the two Swedes end up with Ryan Suter type ice time in this years playoffs, and help carry the team to a deep run. Here are a few reasons why the Lightning will not be making another early exit in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
1) A Healthy Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop’s dislocated elbow forced him to miss the 1st round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season against the Montreal Canadiens. Last year was Bishop’s breakout campaign in the NHL when he established himself as an extremely reliable goaltender for the Tampa Bay Lightning. This season Ben Bishop is back and bigger than ever, with a record of 38-13-5, a 2.23 GAA, and a .916 save percentage. Bishop is determined to lead the Lightning to a deep playoff run. Also the Lightning actually have a reliable backup goalie now. Last year it was obvious Anders Lindback was not prepared for the stage against the Montreal Canadiens. The Lightning have one of the best backup goaltenders in the NHL age 21 or under besides John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks. Andrei Vasilevsky is a 21-year-old and former 1st round pick of Tampa Bay in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Vasilevsky is 7-5-1 with a 2.36 GAA, and a .918 save % this season in his appearances with the Lightning. Both goalies are big, athletic, and are capable of stealing games and even a series.
2) The best Offensive Depth in the NHL
The Lightning have the best offensive depth in the National Hockey League. They will boast the highest scoring offense in the regular season this year.The Lightning currently lead the league with 3.16 goals per game. The Lightning get contributions from all 4 of their lines, and each line can score as well as defend in their own zone. The Lightning top line currently features Steven Stamkos (42G, 29A) with Ryan Callahan (24G, 30A) and rookie Jonathan Drouin(4G, 28A). After a slow start Jonathan Drouin is quietly putting together a very respectable rookie year. While he has not played anywhere near the level of a Gaudreau or Forsberg, Drouin’s speed and playmaking ability have been evident, and Drouin appears to be getting more comfortable at the NHL level each game.
The Lightning will come at teams these playoffs with ‘The Triplets Line’ featuring Tyler Johnson(27G, 42A, +33), Ondrej Palat(16G, 44A, +30), and Nikita Kucherov(28G, 33A, +37). This line has been arguably the NHL’s best this season. Each player on the Tampa Bay Lighting 2nd line is at least a +30 in plus/minus. The Lightning 3rd line is currently Valterri Filppula(12G, 36A), Vladislav Namestnikov (9G, 7A), and Cedric Paquette(12G, 7A). The veteran Filppula will have to take these two promising rookies under his wing and prepare them for playoff hockey, if they are in fact a line during the 1st round. The Lighting 4th line can grind and score goals. Former New York Ranger Brian Boyle (15G, 9A) is currently centering veteran Brendan Morrow (3G, 5A) and young JT Brown (3G, 6A). Boyle has 15 goals this season as a 4th liner and penalty killer for Tampa Bay. Not many teams have a 4th line center with that kind of offensive production. Boyle was a player that significantly elevated his game each year in the playoffs for the New York Rangers, and I expect nothing less for Tampa Bay. When you watch this team play one thing you notice right away is the speed. This team can skate with the very best and have an extremely fast lineup up front.
3) Veteran Leadership
The Lightning have a very good mix of young talent, players with a few years of NHL experience, and veterans that have been there and know what it takes to win in the playoffs. The additions of Anton Stralman on the blueline and Brian Boyle will have huge impacts on the Tampa Bay Lightning in this year’s playoffs. Boyle and Stralman played a ton of playoff hockey over the past three seasons with the New York Rangers. With the Tampa Bay defense currently pretty banged up, the team will rely heavily on Stralman as he currently plays on their top defense unit with fellow Swede Victor Hedman.
Ryan Callahan is another former Ranger as well as the former captain of the New York Rangers, and will likely be a big presence as well on and off the ice.Valterri Filppula and Brendan Morrow are players that understand the grind of the playoffs as well. However, this is Steven Stamkos’s team and now that he has been back for a full season, I believe it will be Stamkos that will be the driving force, catalyst, and biggest locker room presence for the Bolts these playoffs.
Reinforcements on Their Way
The Lightning are currently not 100% with a few key players out of the lineup. Star defenseman Victor Hedman missed the last three games, but will return to the lineup tonight against the New Jersey Devils. Newly acquired Brayden Coburn (lower-body), veteran Jason Garrison(upper-body), and young blueliner Andrej Sustr (upper-body) are all 3 big players on the Lightning blueline that they hope to have back in the lineup next week when the puck drops. Another player is Alex Killorn, who has been playing on the Lightning top line with captain Steven Stamkos and rookie Jonathan Drouin. If Alex Killorn (15G, 23A) returns than Ryan Callahan will drop back to the 3rd line with Valterri Filppula and either Namestnikov or Paquette.
Killorn said he got hurt Thurs vs Ottawa but didn't realize severity til Sat skate: "I'd be shocked if I wasn't playing by playoffs."
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) April 9, 2015
The return of Alex Killorn makes the Lightning a deeper team with three legitimate scoring lines. Even if a few of these players can return the Lightning are still a force in the East right now. Young defenseman such as Luke Witkowski and Mark Barberio can hold it down in the meantime.
Cooper said Hedman is back. Sustr and Killorn "probable" for Game 1. It'd be a "gift" if Coburn was ready for start of playoffs
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) April 9, 2015
The Lightning had an unprecedented amount of rookies in their lineup during last years 1st round defeat to Montreal, and Stamkos believes it was 10 rookies that at least saw the lineup for a game in last years playoffs. The Lightning learned from that defeat and are determined to make a deep run this year. They are poised to win a playoff series whether they win the Atlantic Division or finish in 2nd place, and play the 3rd seed in the Atlantic. The team very well may get their much anticipated rematch against the Montreal Canadiens if both teams win in the opening round. The Lightning are 5-0 against Montreal this season, led by superstar center Steven Stamkos. For what it’s worth Tampa Bay is also undefeated against the President’s Trophy winning New York Rangers this season. A showdown between these two teams in the Eastern Conference Finals would be a great matchup as well.
I am a 2015 graduate of Montclair State University in New Jersey. I have coached ice hockey at the high school level for two seasons here in NJ. I will be covering the Toronto Maple Leafs moving forward for The Hockey Writers.