After securing their playoff berth and the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division, the Tampa Bay Lightning are starting the quest for their third consecutive Stanley Cup. However, many questions will need to be answered if they are going to navigate their way through a very balanced Eastern Conference, starting with a playoff series that begins on Monday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Here are three players that must contribute in order to give the Lightning the best opportunity to make that deep run into the playoffs.
Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov will garner their share of attention from opponents, and while the expectation will be that the Lightning’s dynamic duo will be productive in the playoffs, the Bolts will also need to see consistent production from Brayden Point. For at least a couple of weeks, Point has been the proverbial day-to-day with a lower-body injury. He missed Friday night’s season finale comeback win over the New York Islanders, but has been reported as being ready for game one of the playoffs. He scored 28 goals and 58 points while averaging 19:28 of ice time through 66 games. While his stat line has been good, he hasn’t been the reliable difference maker as he’s been in previous seasons. Much of which has been attributed to his nagging injuries.
One area where Point has been very productive consistently throughout the season has been on the red-hot Lightning power play. During their last four wins, the Lightning is 9-for-16 (56.3 percent) with the man-advantage. Each member of the Lightning’s first-team unit, including Point, has scored at least once on the power play over those past four games. After being ranked 16th on the power play in Mid-March, they moved up to eighth place before the season’s final two games. Point’s role as the “bumper” has been crucial in the recent power-play success, and that play will need to continue into the playoffs if the Lightning looks to move forward toward a third Stanley Cup.
“Built for the playoffs” was how Nick Paul was described when he was traded just before the deadline to the Lightning by the Ottawa Senators for Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft. He will now get his first chance to play postseason hockey and will need to continue to use his size and physicality to complement his teammates, just as he has during his recent time with the team. Even though this is his first time in the NHL playoffs, Paul is not a stranger to meaningful hockey as he scored the game-winning goal for Canada as they claimed gold at the 2021 IIHF World Championships.
Paul has added grit and some scoring to the Lightning lineup, winning 55.92 percent of his battles in the faceoff circle while adding five goals and nine assists. During a period of time in mid-April, head coach Jon Cooper added Paul to the top line with Kucherov and Point. After a short getting-to-know-you phase, the line clicked in a two-game stretch that saw the trio garner 14 shots on goal and seven points, and Paul had two of them. Cooper likes having some big bodies on all of his lines, so it’s a welcome opportunity to have a player like Paul skating with some of his team’s most important players while also contributing to his line’s success.
Quietly, Colton has had a very nice season, especially of late. The 25-year-old picked up some valuable experience playing in all of the Lightning’s 23 postseason games. He has played very well in the last month, and appears to be the kind of young player who can step up his game in big moments. Of course, he will always be remembered for scoring the Cup-winning goal against Montreal last season.
In his second year, Colton scored 22 goals in 79 games. He was very productive when he was elevated to the first line for a while, playing alongside Steven Stamkos. During that stretch just a few weeks ago, he had eight goals and nine points over 12 games. While it is not expected that he will play alongside Stamkos that much, the third line, anchored by Colton and Paul, may become one of the X-factors in the Lightning’s playoff run.
Tampa Bay has a rare opportunity for a historic feat. Should it complete the championship three-peat, it’d be the first NHL franchise since the New York Islanders dynasty of 40 years ago to win the Cup three straight years. They may need some significant production from these three players, though, to make it happen.
Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)