To start with, it needs to be mentioned that the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be included in this list. My THW colleague, Eugene Helfrich, made a strong case that the Maple Leafs should be the team that Tampa Bay Lightning fans root for during the rest of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even with his solid reasons, let’s say that I am not feeling the “vibe” of rooting for the Leafs to win the Stanley Cup.
As a long-time fan of baseball’s former favorite lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs, I am fully aware of what Maple Leafs fans are going through. In addition to the many losing seasons, I am old enough to remember the sting of the Cubs being so close to getting to the World Series in 1969, 1984, and of course, the 2003/Bartman loss to the Florida Marlins. I also think that Maple Leafs have a good chance going forward, as we discussed in our THW post-series wrap-up video.
While wishing the Maple Leafs well for the rest of the playoffs, I would like to suggest three other teams and some reasons that Lightning fans will want to follow as we start to go through some withdrawal of not seeing them in the playoffs any longer, after three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Final.
New Jersey Devils
Former Lightning standout Ondrej Palat worked his playoff magic again in Game 7 against the New York Rangers. In breaking a scoreless tie in the second period, he outworked Chris Kreider and defenseman Adam Fox along the boards for a loose puck, then fed it to Michael McLeod in front of the net, who promptly flipped a backhand past Igor Shesterkin. Palat had two goals and three assists in helping the Devils bounce back from losing the series’ first two games.
It was extremely disappointing that the Lightning had to let such a player go, based solely on the fact that they could not keep him because of salary cap issues. Palat had been such a clutch performer for the Lightning in the playoffs. Coming into this year’s playoffs, the 32-year-old had 12 game-winning goals, which is third among active players behind Joe Pavelski of the Dallas Stars (14) and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins (13). Over the years, his value to the Lightning makes it easy to root for him wearing another team’s sweater.
The Seattle Kraken won their first-ever playoff series on Sunday (April 30), defeating the Colorado Avalanche on the road to take the decisive Game 7. In doing so, they became the first expansion team to beat the reigning Stanley Cup champs in their inaugural playoff series. One of the reasons to follow them is that former Lightning forward Yanni Gourde is on the roster, as the Kraken selected him in the 2021 Expansion Draft. The 31-year-old had been a part of the Lightning’s 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup-winning teams.
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Jared McCann was the Kraken’s leading scorer during the regular season but did not play in the series after Game 4 due to taking a hit from Cale Makar along the boards. Gourde was the leading scorer for the playoffs with six points, while Oliver Bjorkstrand scored two goals in the critical Game 7. Philip Grubauer is in net for the Kraken and is coming off a series that saw him post a 2.44 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. The 31-year-old became the first German-born goaltender to start and win a Stanley Cup playoff game in 2015 as a member of the Washington Capitals. Having a Lightning alumnus on the team and their underdog status makes them intriguing to watch in the next round as they will face the Dallas Stars.
This recommendation is purely due to the fact that the Edmonton Oilers have two of the most exciting players to watch in the NHL, Connor McDavid, and Leon Draisaitl. Both players led the Oilers in scoring in their series victory over the Los Angeles Kings while getting equal production from Evan Bouchard. Their prolific scoring was also on display on special teams, as the Oilers were the best team in the league with the man advantage in the regular season and kept that going by converting on nine of their 16 power play chances.
In the second round, the Oilers will face the Vegas Golden Knights, allowing viewers to watch two of the top players from the 2015 Draft go head-to-head, McDavid and Jack Eichel. Even though the Oilers took three out of four in the regular season, the Golden Knights finished ahead of them in the Pacific Division and were the second-best team in the league after the All-Star Break. With the Lightning eliminated, watching two of the best players in the NHL will be well worth following, even recording the game for those who cannot watch the games with start times around 10 PM EST.
After three years of deep playoff runs, it will be a bit of an adjustment for Lightning fans not to have the pleasure of watching their team continue in this year’s run to the Stanley Cup. However, there are teams still playing that will give fans a reason to watch and possibly root for while they wait for their Lightning to take to the ice next season.