While many fans recognize the importance of a strong start to an NHL regular season, it is how you finish that is key. A strong start can set the tone for the season, but look no further than the Montreal Canadiens (who started this season with nine straight wins and are now on the outside looking in at the playoffs) to see the importance of consistent play. Playing well consistently is of the utmost importance right now, and watching the Tampa Bay Lightning the last eight days creates some cause for concern. After rattling off nine straight wins of their own, the Lightning have dropped four of their last five games, and have been outscored 12 to 8 goals.
The Atlantic Division: Up for Grabs
Despite playing rather poorly the last eight days (save for a dominant 4-0 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets), the Lightning currently sit third in the Atlantic Division. Just two points separate the Lightning from the Panthers, and just a single point sits between the Lightning and Bruins. With their strong play through the end of February and beginning of March, the Lightning worked themselves into a good position to finish the regular season strongly. The key for the Lightning down the stretch will be to play well and play well consistently. (This means no more 4-1 losses to teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs.) While the next closest team in the division is the Red Wings (with 79 points), the Metropolitan Division also has two teams with 85 points and sitting 2nd and 3rd in the division (the New York Rangers and New York Islanders). Given the current layout with the standings, this means one thing: Keep winning!
The Road Ahead
The Lightning have two games left on their road trip, with remaining games against the Stars and Coyotes, before returning home for a six game home stand to (almost) end the regular season. It is important that the Lightning find the chemistry that has seemed to escape the team at certain points throughout the season. Upon returning back to the Amalie Arena, the Lightning will play three games against three very important opponents: the Red Wings, the Islanders, and the Panthers. Given the current landscape of the Eastern Conference (and Atlantic Division), these are must-win sort of games.
Scoring More Goals
Performing more consistently would also mean that this team is scoring more goals. As the regular season nears a close, goals will be harder to come by. The intensity of NHL games is noticeably higher and playoff-esque at this point in the season, and goaltenders will be playing at a high level. That said, the Lightning did not seem to have much trouble scoring goals as they wound down their last regular season. With the Steven Stamkos distraction behind them (for now), the injuries somewhat at bay (Kucherov returned to the lineup but Filpulla is out), and the goaltending outstanding most nights (what a year for Ben Bishop and Co.), the Lightning hold the key to their own future.
Deep Playoff Run is Likely
With the team playing so inconsistently right now, it may be bold to say that this team is still likely to have a deep playoff run. When you evaluate this team from top to bottom, it seems a little easier to make that statement. When they are playing at the levels that they are capable of, they are a great team with world-class speed, creativity and goal scoring ability. When they have played badly this year, they look like a far cry from the team that was two wins short of a Stanley Cup. That being said, this team has too much skill and talent not to pull things together for a strong finish to their regular season and a deep playoff run. Given the uncertainty of Stamkos and other pending free agents, this could be the last true version of the 2015 Stanley Cup Finals team. Lightning fans buckle up, the next few weeks will tell you a lot about this team’s future.
Check out Dave Mishkin on Lightning Loss to Leafs to learn more about his take on last night’s game.