Lightning Road to Cup Repeat Must Start With Winning the Division

The next 10 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning could give us a clear picture of who is going to win the Central Division this season. The schedule includes the iron of the division in the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, the hottest team in the Nashville Predators, as well as Tampa’s nemesis, the Columbus Blue Jackets. Coming through this and winning the division should be the top priority for the Bolts and here’s why. 

The Lightning come into the two-game series with Columbus with 10 regulation losses on the season. Of those, five have come against two teams, the Hurricanes and the Panthers with the latter currently the leaders of the division. If the Bolts finish second or third instead of first, it is more likely than not that they’ll have to face both teams in the playoffs to make it to the Eastern Conference Final. 

Patric Hornqvist Florida Panthers Brett Pesce Carolina Hurricanes Panthers
Patric Hornqvist, Florida Panthers and Brett Pesce, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

The next two teams in the standings are the Predators and Chicago Blackhawks. The Lightning have handled those two teams fairly easily losing just once to either of them for a combined 12-2 record. The Blue Jackets, however, have been their pesky selves hanging two losses on the Bolts in the first four games they’ve played head to head. 

Getting Chicago or Nashville in the First Round of the Playoffs Would Benefit the Bolts

Going into this season’s playoff round, whether it be in a new bubble or not, the best-case scenario for the Bolts would be to face either the Blackhawks or Predators. Why is this? Well, aside from the record Tampa has against these teams, they just don’t pose the same threat over a seven-game series the other potential opponents do. Teams that give the Lightning the most trouble are fast teams that play a physical game and get in on the forecheck before you can blink. 

All due respect to Chicago and Nashville, but that’s not really their calling card. They can both play that way at times, but it’s not either team’s true identity and to beat the Lightning over seven games, it absolutely has to be. In most of the games this season against Tampa, both Nashville and Chicago have usually gotten caught up in trying to beat the Bolts at their own game, which is skating and timely scoring with stellar goaltending mixed in. The problem with that, is no other team in the NHL can do that because nobody else has a roster like Tampa. 

Tampa Bay Lightning Andrei Vasilevskiy Columbus Blue Jackets Pierre-Luc Dubois Josh Anderson
Tampa Bay Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy gives up a goal as Columbus Blue Jackets’ Pierre-Luc Dubois and Josh Anderson watch (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

The only way to take down the Lightning over seven games is to disrupt them in their own zone before they can mount a “lightning” quick attack and start coming at you in waves. That’s why Columbus has been a really tough team for the Bolts to beat on a consistent basis the last two and a half years. As most Tampa hockey fans already know, the hallmark of John Tortorella-coached teams is always physical play and constant disruption all over the ice. 

The Blue Jackets are well-equipped to take down a team like Tampa because their style is, at times, the perfect foil to what the Bolts want to do. Unfortunately, this season for Columbus, they’re in a division with two other teams that play a similar way in Florida and Carolina, and are better at it with more talented rosters. 

Columbus Is Always a Tough Opponent for Tampa

In a normal season, Columbus wouldn’t have to deal with either team. Alas, this season they do and it’ll probably cost them a trip to the playoffs. If they can overcome both the Blackhawks and Preds and make it in, even with the problems the Lightning have had with the Jackets, they are still the preferable opponent. If the Bolts get them first, it means that Carolina and Florida have to slug it out over seven games before, presumably, taking on Tampa. 

Through the first 38 games, the Lightning has a .684 winning percentage for the season. If you remove all games played against Carolina and Florida, that gives the Lightning a .750 winning percentage. The games against the Canes and Cats have been a stalemate, with Tampa going just .500 against both teams. These numbers point to it being imperative that the Lightning avoid at least one of them in the first two rounds. 

Nikita Kucherov (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

All that being said, even if the Lightning do have to go through both teams in the first two rounds, they can certainly do that. In fact, they’d probably be favored in both series even if they don’t win the division. The Bolts will be getting Nikita Kucherov back at some point and he should provide a decent boost at first while rounding into form as the playoffs roll on. 

This all depends on how far Tampa is able to get, of course, but the deeper they go, the more of an advantage they’ll have. They know how to navigate deep waters better than most teams – they proved it last season and for much of this season despite a whole slew of injuries to the blue line. How the blueline rounds back into form going into the playoffs will be the key to winning another Stanley Cup. 

Recent injuries to Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak and Ryan McDonagh have ravaged the D-corps. So far only McDonagh has returned, forcing the Bolts to use youngster Cal Foote and lesser-used players like Andreas Borgman and Ben Thomas. If the Lightning backline is forced to rely on these players against the Cats and Canes, don’t be surprised if the Lightning don’t make it out of the first two rounds of the playoffs.