Tuesday’s game against the Detroit Red Wings was more than just a 6-2 win for the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a convincing victory over an Atlantic Division opponent that is fighting for its playoff life in an effort to make the post-season for the 25th straight year. (To put that streak into perspective, the last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs (at the end of the 1989-1990 season), 10 players on the current Lightning roster were not even born yet.) The Lightning were firing on all cylinders and looked like the Lightning of last year, which bodes well. Whether it was offensively (nine different players were on the score sheet) or defensively (Ben Bishop posted his 31st win of the season and now has a 2.02 GAA and .928 save percentage), the Lightning were consistent for sixty minutes.
Eastern Conference Playoff Picture: Anything Can Happen
The Lightning are now one game in to a six-game home stand that could determine their season. The Lightning are sitting atop the Atlantic Division with 89 points. However, the Florida Panthers are second (89 points, but less wins), the Bruins are third (86 points) and the Red Wings are fourth (83 points). Although the Red Wings are in fourth place within the division, they are 9th in the Eastern Conference and if the season ended today, they would not be in the playoffs. Given the narrow point spread in the Eastern Conference (currently, just six points), a team can go from a division leader to a non-playoff team in a matter of games.
The Home Stand of All Home Stands
The Lightning ended a four-game road trip on a high note, defeating the Arizona Coyotes 2-0 (and with Ben Bishop setting the franchise record with his 15th shutout in team history). With their return home on Tuesday night, the Lightning began a six-game home stand that can determine their playoff fate.
After defeating the Red Wings, they have games against the Islanders, Panthers, Maple Leafs, Canadiens, and Devils. Although only two of those teams are currently playoff teams (Panthers and Islanders), none of these games will come easy. Look no further than the Lightning’s last game against the Maple Leafs when they lost 4-1 and looked like a different team. The most important game (depending on if you are from Ontario or Quebec) will take place Saturday night, when the Panthers will visit Amalie Arena in a battle of Atlantic Division leaders.
Ben Bishop’s Prowess
As great as Bishop was last year, he is statistically better this year and he has been the team’s most valuable player. Although Bishop will likely not eclipse last year’s career high of 40 wins, this is largely attributable to a slow start by the Lightning and continued injuries to some of its key scorers throughout the season. Bishop’s GAA (2.02) and save percentage (.928) are second in the NHL and he has been a constant for this team in a season mired with uncertainty, especially early on.
Every great playoff team has a great goalie, and Bishop is playing better now than he did this time last year. In order for the Lightning to maintain their position atop the Atlantic Division, it will take continued dominance by Bishop in goal, consistent scoring, and a high level of intensity moving forward. Although these games are still part of the regular season, they take on a whole new level of meaning, especially given the unique situation posed by the Atlantic Division’s narrow point spread.
Important Test in the Immediate Future: The Back-to-Back
While each game at the tail end of a regular season is intense on its own, a real test arises when you have back-to-back games. With Friday’s game against the Islanders, the Lightning will be facing a team that is currently one of two wild cards for the playoffs, currently 7th in the Eastern Conference (with 87 points). Again, given the tight spread between playoff and non-playoff teams, this game will be a “must win” type game for both teams. The Lightning will then turn around and play the Florida Panthers, a team that has outperformed even the most optimistic Panthers’ fan’s expectations.
The Panthers are being led by the legendary Jaromir Jagr and a cast that includes a number of gifted young players and the dominant Roberto Luongo in goal. The “interstate rivalry” that fans of the Lightning and Panthers sought for a number of years has never really been as meaningful as it could have been, given that both teams were rarely “great” at the same time over the years, but this game Saturday will be a playoff atmosphere and certainly contribute to what fans of both teams have hoped for over the years. Here’s to solid home stands and let the games begin!