The last time the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Atlantic Division, they were swept in the first round of the playoffs in 2019. That year, they won the Presidents’ Trophy for demolishing the competition during the regular season and accumulating 128 points in the process. Did I mention that they were swept in the first round of the playoffs—by the lowest-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets? They made NHL history that year as the first team to end the season with the most points and be swept in the first round of the playoffs. But they were in good company, as 75% of teams that win the Presidents’ Trophy do not win the Stanley Cup. I think the team learned a hard lesson in Columbus.
During the Lightning’s two Stanley Cup-winning seasons of 2020 and 2021, they finished second and third in their division, respectively. Last season, they ranked third in the Atlantic Division and went to the Cup Final. Are you noticing a trend? Where you rank at the end of the season doesn’t necessarily help you advance in the postseason. With that in mind, the Lightning shouldn’t worry about securing the top seed in the Atlantic Division this season.
Let the Toronto Maple Leafs Win the Division
I’m not sure if the Lightning just play better as the underdog, but it seems like they play harder and scrappier when facing adversity. If they can just make it into the postseason, they will garner the attention of every playoff opponent and the hockey faithful hoping to watch the team advance to their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup Final.
However, seven teams in the division will also be vying for a playoff spot. Having to play each team in their division four times, they may not want to tip their hand or generate additional motivation for their rivals since they will probably face many of these same teams in the postseason. Preseason predictions have the Toronto Maple Leafs as the top seed in the Atlantic Division this season, with the Lightning and Florida Panthers rounding out the top spots.
It’s not only the Lightning’s rivals within their own division that they need to worry about. The entire Eastern Conference is just plain tough—every team has a legitimate chance to beat you every single night. As the season grinds on, they will face conference foes whose chances to reach the playoffs have dimmed significantly from opening night. Every opponent will want to bump off the team who represented the conference in last year’s Stanley Cup Final. I’m sure the Lightning will drop a few of these so-called easy games, but all they need to do is remain healthy enough to slide into the playoffs through the back door.
What the Lightning Need to Concentrate On
Having played the most games of any team in the NHL over the past three years, and having truncated offseasons, the Lightning must be a little “spent.” For this reason, and the fact that Andrei Vasilevskiy played 63 of the 82 games last season and added 23 more games on the team’s march through the playoffs, backup goalie Brian Elliott needs to see more starts this season. He played well in relief of Vasilevskiy and should remain a solid netminder for the team when called upon.
It takes time to build rapport with your linemates—it typically doesn’t happen overnight. Lightning coach Jon Cooper is superb at integrating new players into the existing system and predicting the right player combinations. However, with veteran players like Ryan McDonagh and Ondrej Palat shipped off to other teams, the coach’s job just got harder. It may take all season for the team to jell defensively, offensively, and on special teams.
Of course, it’s always satisfying to see your favorite team jump over their rivals and land in the top spot in the division. Although history has proven that this scenario hasn’t always been a positive position for the Lightning (have I mentioned the sweep by the Blue Jackets?). They may fly a little under the radar this season, which could take some pressure off the team – let the Colorado Avalanche feel the pressure to repeat.
Even if the Lightning play without as much pressure as they’ve had the past three seasons, they are expected to be a contender in the playoffs. The Panthers had the most points in the NHL last season and were swept by the Lightning in the second round. All that work from October to April and nothing to show for it, except a few postseason wins and a trophy. It’s my hope that the Bolts slide into the postseason with a healthy roster and make it to the Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps they could even win the whole damn thing. Just don’t root for them to win the division.
Lydia Szyjka is a freelance writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from H.B. Plant High School—never dreaming her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is director of communications for a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the alumni magazine. An avid hockey fan, she and her husband live in Delaware with their two cats.