If you had told Tampa Bay Lightning fans that the team would go 2-1-0 and earn the second seed after their three Round Robin games, most would be happy with that result. Given the uncertainty of play in the bubble, pulling off two wins against strong opponents should mean that the Lightning are in good shape for the playoffs.
However, in Round 1, the Lightning will be facing off against their new nemesis, the Columbus Blue Jackets. When you take into account the Blue Jackets’ style of play and injuries to key players, there is some understandable skepticism around the league about Tampa Bay’s playoff future.
Before the puck drops in game one, it will be easy for fans and pundits alike to write off the Lightning as a lost cause this postseason, with many projecting another quick playoff exit for the Bolts at the hands of Columbus.
All this means that for the first time since 2015, Tampa Bay will be seen as the underdogs heading into a playoff series… And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lightning Have Roster to Stop Blue Jackets
When you look at it on paper, this should be a terrible matchup for the Lightning. Columbus is a tight-checking, defensively responsible team that just finished shutting down the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have one of the top offensive units in the NHL.
However, what is being lost in this discussion is how different this Lightning squad is compared to the one that got swept in 2019. Yes, scoring is still a major part of their gameplan, but they have improved in those tough, defensive areas that win playoff games.
For example, the Lightning posted 122 hits in their first three games in the bubble, averaging 39.56 per sixty minutes of play. This was the most out of any Round Robin team, and good for second overall per sixty minutes. They also were in the top-five for takeaways and bottom five in giveaways, meaning that the Lightning were controlling the puck.
In contrast, the Lightning were second to last in takeaways in the 2019 playoffs, had more giveaways, and registered roughly five fewer hits in their four games against the Blue Jackets.
What this all means is that the Lightning are a more complete team than they are being given credit for. Yes, they are not perfect, but they have a better balance between their top-end offensive potential and their defensive grinders who will dictate the flow of the game.
Lessons Learned After Being Swept
When you look back at the Lightning’s meltdown last season, one of the driving factors was Tampa Bay’s lack of urgency. They were playing like a team that was thinking about how they were going to break through the Eastern Conference Finals, instead of focusing on the task at hand. By the time they seemingly realized that Columbus could beat them, it was the third period of Game 4.
The Blue Jackets won’t catch Tampa Bay sleepwalking again. To put it simply, the team was humbled by that loss, and they won’t overlook their opponents again.
This team is hungry, and they know that nothing is guaranteed. Yes, they may be without Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, but they have the talent and depth to overcome these obstacles.
Lightning Play Best as the Underdog
Most importantly, the Lightning have always been one of those franchises that thrive when you expect them to fail.
In 2015, they barely scraped by the Detroit Red Wings as underdogs before making a run to the Stanley Cup Final. Since then, they have been chasing the narrative that they should win it all, but can’t despite coming so close.
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Getting past Columbus won’t just be a step in the path for a Stanley Cup. This series will be a defining moment for a Lightning organization that came up short for the better part of the last decade.
A victory could signal that this Lightning squad is finally ready to meet their destiny. And while the rest of the hockey world expect them to flounder, I expect the Bolts to step up to this challenge and showcase that they still are a team to be feared.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.