The Philadelphia Flyers close out their Stanley Cup qualifying round games with a matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It will be a grind, especially after taking on the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals earlier in the tournament. However, the Flyers have the tools to pull off the victory.
2019-20 Regular Season Review
The Lightning ranked second in the Eastern Conference standings, sitting only behind the 100-point Bruins. They won 43 of 70 games and finished with 92 points. Their offense was the best in the league with 245 goals for. The Capitals are second with 240, while the Toronto Maple Leafs are third with 238. In comparison, the Flyers scored 232, good for sixth in the league in goals for. The Bolts only allowed 195 goals this season, while Philadelphia allowed 196.
Looking at some of the Tampa leaders, two names stick out, as usual: captain Steven Stamkos and winger Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov could have hit 100 points again had the regular season played out. It would’ve been Kucherov’s third time accomplishing that feat. He posted 100 points in 80 games during the 2017-18 season while posting 128 points last year through 82 games. He finished the 2019-20 campaign with 33 goals and 85 points.
Stamkos racked up 29 goals and 37 assists in 57 games. He is a superstar who will be dangerous in the playoffs. He almost tallied 100 points in 82 games last season but fell shy at 98. His overall postseason performance is solid with 23 goals and 30 assists in 70 career games with the Lightning.
They are only the top two offensive talents too. The Lightning have a plethora of skilled offensive players including Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and Anthony Cirelli. Their defense is stacked with star-caliber names like Victor Hedman, Kevin Shattenkirk, Mikhail Sergachev, and Ryan McDonagh. In net, they have Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney.
If there is one thing that all of the Flyers’ qualifying opponents have in common, it is their depth in all positions which makes them that much tougher to defeat. If Kucherov or Stamkos has an off game, their offense can still power through. Their defense is pretty stellar, and Vasilevskiy played spectacularly all season.
A couple of Bolts were nominated for their achievements this season. Vasilevskiy is up for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie, which he won last year. His competition is the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask and Winnipeg Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck.
Hedman is also up for the Norris Trophy, which is given to the best defenseman. He previously won this award after the 2017-18 season. Hedman’s competition for the Norris is the Capitals’ John Carlson and Nashville Predators’ captain Roman Josi.
Many players on Tampa’s roster know what it’s like to almost hoist the Stanley Cup, and that drive is still there from when they lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015.
Close but No Cigar in 2015
The Lightning were very close to winning their second Stanley Cup in franchise history in 2015. They faced off against the Chicago Blackhawks, who had a stellar lineup thanks to captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Brandon Saad among others.
The Bolts had a decorated roster of their own. A lot of the top players on the 2019-20 team played crucial roles on that 2015 Cup run. Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Killorn, Palat, and Tyler Johnson helped run the ship and Vasilevskiy was backing up Ben Bishop.
It was a hard-fought Cup Final. It was an even contest. However, the Blackhawks won both Games 5 and 6 to clinch their third Stanley Cup in five years, making them one of the recent hockey dynasties. The goal that stung the most was the nail-in-the-coffin tally by Kane, who received a pass by former Bolt Brad Richards. That clutch goal was scored in the third period. The Blackhawks won the Cup off a 2-0 shutout win.
Five years later, the Lightning want redemption for falling short of winning that Cup. They proved that they have what it takes to be a Cup contending team but now, five years later, they want to finish the job, and that starts by beating the other three teams they face in the qualifying round.
The 2004 Matchup
The most notable postseason series between the Flyers and the Lightning took place in the 2004 Eastern Conference Final. Philadelphia had defeated the New Jersey Devils (in five games) and the Maple Leafs to get to this point. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay had defeated the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens.
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In this series, both teams had explosive offense. In one game, the Bolts would dominate the offense, and then the Flyers would tally a lot in the next contest.
Other games were pretty close. Game 4 was a 3-2 victory for the Flyers at home at the Wachovia Center. Game 6 saw both sides notch four goals in regulation, and Flyers forward Simon Gagne posted the game-winning tally in the first overtime. Game 7 was a close 2-1 game. Goalies Robert Esche for Philadelphia and Nikolai Khabibulin for the Lightning stood on their heads all series, and they were a big reason some games could have gone either way.
Tampa Bay won the 2004 matchup against the City of Brotherly Love. Game 7 saw the only Flyers goal come from defenseman Kim Johnsson. Ruslan Fedotenko got the first one for the Lightning, and Fredrik Modin broke the tie to give the Bolts the edge. The ‘Bulin Wall’ was on full display, stopping 22 shots. The Lightning won the Prince of Wales Trophy as the Eastern Conference champions, and Philadelphia was sent home. The Bolts beat the Calgary Flames in seven games to win their first Stanley Cup championship that season.
Flyers Game Plan
The Flyers battled the Lightning twice during the 2019-20 regular season. In both instances, Tampa skated away on top. In the first game, Philadelphia was shut down offensively thanks to an outstanding performance by Vasilevskiy in net. He stopped all 23 shots while forward Patrick Maroon scored the lone goal in the contest.
In that second matchup, there was a little more offensive punch on both sides. The Flyers found the net three times thanks to captain Claude Giroux, defenseman Ivan Provorov, and James van Riemsdyk. Tampa outscored Philadelphia again, however, winning 5-3. Lightning goals came from Kucherov, Killorn, Point, Cedric Paquette, and Carter Verhaeghe. That win against the Flyers was the Lightning’s tenth straight victory.
The key to winning this qualifying-round matchup is for the Flyers to figure out Vasilevskiy. He has owned the NHL the past few seasons as one of the best goalies. The Flyers have to put a player in front of Vasilevskiy to block his vision. Whoever is in front of the net must also deflect, redirect, or cash in on a rebound. If Vasilevskiy is on his game, it will be a long night for the Flyers.
It is impossible to keep the entire Bolts roster contained, but Stamkos and Kucherov need to be watched. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper may want to set up Stamkos for the one-timer, and the same goes for Kucherov on the other side.
It is going to be a challenge trying to leash both players but the younger Flyers defense will have to try and dominate their space. Veteran leaders like Matt Niskanen and Shayne Gostisbehere need to help ease the younger players who do not have as much postseason experience. This also benefits having an experienced coaching staff with Alain Vigneault, Michel Therrien, and Mike Yeo who have all been NHL head coaches before, and can calm the younger players down.
On the opposite, the Flyers’ offense will have to break through a very solid defensive core. Hedman, Shattenkirk, Sergachev, and McDonagh are dual threats who can add an offensive punch when firing at all cylinders while also shutting down the opposition’s top forwards.
The Flyers had a pretty solid scoring group during the regular season: Giroux (21 goals and 32 assists for 53 points in 69 games), Travis Konecny (24 goals and 37 assists for 61 points in 66 games), Sean Couturier (22 goals and 37 assists for 59 points in 69 games), and Jakub Voracek (12 goals and 44 assists for 56 points in 69 games) among others.
They were shut down significantly this season by only accruing three total goals in the two matchups they faced against Tampa. If the trend continues the same in the qualifying round game, the Flyers may find themselves a lower seed among the top four when the next playoff round begins due to a Tampa loss.
For those who do not know, the round robin is only determining the seed order between the four teams in the Flyers, Capitals, Bruins, and Lightning. Every win is significant, and a loss to the Bolts could impact how difficult the rest of the playoffs fall for the Flyers. They have to significantly up their offensive production in order to beat Tampa.
Overall, the Flyers have themselves a challenge in the Lightning. The entire qualifying round is going to push this Philadelphia team to their limits. They reunited and started things right with an overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the pre-playoff exhibition match. Now, they have three strong opponents to fight against as playoffs officially unfold in August.