With the Tampa Bay Lightning officially clinching a playoff spot, it is time to start looking forward to the looming postseason. While the Lightning have been able to accrue points at a steady pace all season long, both the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs have stayed close to them in the standings, meaning they are far from a lock as the No. 1 team in the East. After looking relatively average over the past few weeks, it is possible that the club finishes anywhere from third in the Atlantic to winning the Presidents’ Trophy.
Even with all of this uncertainty surrounding their first-round opposition, it’s still worth discussing who the Lightning could face off against in the playoffs. Right now, there are four teams that they could realistically meet in round one, barring a major shift in the standings. Those teams are the Bruins, Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers.
There are no bad teams on that list of potential playoff opponents. However, there are teams that Tampa Bay would prefer to meet in round one and others that they want to avoid at all costs. With this in mind, how do the Bolts stack up against their future competition?
Boston Bruins: Who the Lightning Want to Avoid
Since meeting in the Eastern Conference Final in 2011, the Lightning have struggled against the Bruins during their regular season games. Even as both teams have overhauled rosters, fired coaches and changed playstyles since their last postseason meeting, the Bruins typically have had Tampa’s number on any given night.
This season has been no different in the rivalry. So far Boston has soundly won both games versus Tampa Bay, with two games left in the regular season series. Their most recent meet-up, a 3-0 drubbing by an injured Boston team, was arguably the worst game for the Bolts this year. Assuming they will be close to healthy for the postseason, the Bruins are easily the hardest first round match-up the Lightning could face.
The only good news for the Lightning is that they are unlikely to meet Boston in the first round of the playoffs. It would require the Maple Leafs to win the Atlantic Division, which, while possible, is becoming less likely each and every day. With their current play, it is likely that either the Bruins or Lightning will win the division, pushing their next potential postseason battle a second-round affair.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Lightning’s Next Rivalry
Should the Lightning falter down the home stretch and slip to second or third in the Atlantic, they will likely play the Maple Leafs in the opening round of the playoffs. While these teams have little history in the postseason, they have slowly formed a rivalry over the last few seasons that is quickly becoming one of the best in the sport. While a playoff match-up against Toronto would be difficult on the Bolts, it would likely be the premier first-round series for the NHL.
Each game between these new rivals has been some of the most entertaining hockey this season. Games are fast and furious, with momentum swinging wildly period to period. For example, in their most recent game, the Lightning came back from a three-goal deficit to beat Toronto by scoring four goals in less than 15 minutes.
Due to their similar, offense first gameplan, a seven-game series against a healthy Maple Leafs could easily go either way for the Lightning. There is little separation between the two teams, meaning that almost every game could come down to a last-second shot or an overtime hero pulling their club to victory. While this match-up is more favorable than the Bruins, Toronto is still a team that Tampa Bay wants to avoid in the first round.
Florida Panthers: A Proper Sunshine State Rivalry
Since the start of 2018, the Panthers have been one of the hottest teams in the NHL. During the new year, they pulled themselves from more than 10 points back from a playoff spot to a virtual a tie for the last wildcard in the East. With their recent superb play, it is likely that the Lightning could meet their in-state rivals should they win the Atlantic division.
The first playoff series between the Sunshine State’s top hockey clubs would help shed some light on a growing hockey rivalry in Florida. Given that the teams combined to score 39 goals in four games in their season series, this could be the surprise first-round match-up that steals all of the nightly highlights. The games would likely become a track meet, with both teams running up and down the ice and scorings goals at a seemingly impossible rate.
The good news for the Lightning, however, is that they typically perform well in this scenario. For example, when Florida posted five goals on them earlier this year, they responded with eight. This makes a meeting against the Panthers an attractive one, as it would not only be a fun game to watch, but it would allow the Bolts to stick with their offense-first gameplan.
New Jersey Devils: A True Wild Card for the Bolts
Of all the teams the Lightning could face-off against, they know the least about the Devils. Having only played each other once since October, there’s little for the team to draw on about New Jersey. All they know is that they tend to lose close games when they play the Devils.
However, the former top team in the Metro has been sliding down the standings since the All-Star break. While it may not be a perfect match-up for the Lightning, New Jersey is a far more appealing than facing off against Boston or Toronto in the first round. If the recent struggles of Cory Schneider continue, Tampa Bay meet a team that has to burn a lot of extra energy just to qualify for the playoffs instead of preparing for them.
This doesn’t make New Jersey a perfect match-up for Tampa Bay, though. Much like Boston, the Devils always play a tougher defensive game that can slow down the Lightning. With one meeting left in the regular season, the Lightning could learn what a truly desperate New Jersey team plays like. If they get shut down by Schneider and the Devils defense again, they may be hoping to avoid them in the postseason.
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.