The Tampa Bay Lightning will have a difficult road ahead of them if they want to secure their third straight Stanley Cup Championship.
Looking at the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, most pundits believe that there is quite a bit of balance, with not a lot separating each of the eight contenders. This is supported by the fact that for the first time, eight teams in the same conference have reached 100 points in one season.
Related: 3 Takeaways From Lightning’s Weekend Games vs Predators & Panthers
However, there are three teams in the Eastern Conference that will prove to be the biggest threats to the Lightning being able to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup for a third consecutive season.
#3 – Toronto Maple Leafs
Do not let last week’s 8-1 thumping of the Toronto Maple Leafs lull you into a false sense of security. As the likely first-round opponent, Toronto will prove to be a difficult matchup, especially if Auston Matthews can return to full health. He recently took a week off to recover from an undisclosed ailment. This could be why he has also struggled scoring goals, as he is currently experiencing his longest goal drought of the season, having gone five straight games without scoring until he netted his 60th goal of the season Tuesday night. In addition, defenseman Jake Muzzin had been injured, but he played over 20 minutes against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night. Toronto is faced with the decision to play or rest some of their key players, balancing an objective of being able to secure home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The injuries have hampered the Leafs of late, resulting in them being dropped four spots in the latest THW Power Rankings after losing games last week to the Lightning and the Florida Panthers.
But make no mistake, a Maple Leaf team that is close to being fully healthy will be a tough out for the Lightning. Matthews leads a very deep top-six forward line that is as good as any in the NHL. On Sunday night, they proved that they are a gutsy team, grinding out an overtime victory over Washington after being down two goals in the third period. Wily veterans like Jason Spezza provide the Leafs with a nice complement to their leading scorers such as Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares.
#2 – New York Rangers
The New York Rangers are also a team with a few injuries, as they deal with the dilemma as to how much, if at all, to play many of their banged-up players.
What is known for sure is that the goaltending of Igor Shesterkin will give the Rangers a very good shot of making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. He is the leading candidate for Vezina Trophy, outpacing the rest of the league’s goalies in every key category. He has played so well that many are considering him to be a viable selection for the Hart Trophy as the league’s best player. He will be just the third goalie in league history with at least 3,000 minutes played and a .936 save percentage (SV%) or better. He also easily leads the NHL with an enormous 44.55 Goals Saved Against Average.
The Rangers are also loaded with goal scorers. Chris Kreider is the longest-tenured Ranger, and has become a team leader and mentor to a very young but talented team. He has also scored a career-best 52 goals so far this season. The electrifying Artemi Panarin leads the Rangers in points, followed by their outstanding playmaker Mika Zibanejad. On the blue line, the Rangers have Adam Fox, who is fourth on the team in points. He also has become one of the NHL’s elite in leading the Rangers on the power play.
The Rangers might be one of the proverbial teams that are “just a year away,” but they have enough talent to make a big run in the playoffs and end the Lightning’s reign as Eastern Conference champions.
#1 – Florida Panthers
As the number one seed in the conference and in the THW’s Power Rankings, all roads to winning the Eastern Conference go through the Florida Panthers.
Florida is having its best season ever. It has racked up 120 points so far over 79 games. Last weekend, the Lightning ended the Panthers’ 13-game winning streak, which was the best in the league this season. The Panthers are on their way to winning the Presidents’ Trophy, although as the Lightning will attest, that award does not guarantee success. Since the 2001-02 season, the Presidents’ Trophy winner has only gone on to win the Stanley Cup three times, with the last being the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.
The big advantage to being the number one seed will be that the Panthers will have home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs. A huge benefit since the Panthers only lost consecutive games at home twice, coming in a two-game stretch against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 14 and the Los Angeles Kings on Dec. 16. Florida also had three separate home winning streaks of at least nine games, including two streaks of 11 straight home wins.
While a third straight Stanley Cup is very possible for the Lightning, they will have to go through a gauntlet of formidable opponents to get there.