In a word, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s scheduled start to the 2018-19 season was atrocious. By the time they played their second game of the year on October 11th, fellow Atlantic division rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing their fifth. Sure, this won’t mean anything by the end of the year, but Lightning fans can’t help but feel a little bit let down after only getting one game in the first eight days of the new NHL season.
However, even if they are losing the scheduling battle to the Leafs, the Lightning have to be aware of how their rivals are playing to start out the year. The Leafs have done their work so far, setting a 4-1-0 record before the Lightning even got a chance at their second game. While they will get these games back throughout the season, one can’t help but feel a little bit behind when one of your biggest opposition already has a six-point lead on you.
What the Lightning can’t do, though, is purely focus on the Maple Leafs. Even if they are one of their top opponents for the Atlantic division, they aren’t the only threat. With this in mind, which teams will be fighting the Lightning for first place in the division throughout the 2018-19 season?
Florida Panthers: The Great In-State Threat
It may seem like a bit of a sexy pick right now, but the Florida Panthers have everything in place to be a legitimately great team this year. Much like the Lightning of the 2017-18 season, they are coming off a successful yet disappointing prior year where they played well but came up one point short of the playoffs. This, along with a maturing core of young star talent, could give Florida that final kick to shake off a 20-year playoff series victory drought in 2019.
It starts at the top for Florida, which as the right mixture of size, skill, and speed to compete with the Lightning at all facets of the game. As we saw on opening night, they are a responsible unit that won’t allow Tampa Bay’s top players space or time to set up for a perfect shot. Unlike last season, Tampa Bay will have to rely on a gritty gameplan to grind out goals while playing the Panthers.
If not for their uncertainty in net due to Roberto Luongo’s injury, one would expect Florida to keep pace with Tampa Bay and Toronto, threatening to take the top spot in the Atlantic division throughout the year. With his injury, though, things get a little bit murkier. If James Reimer can play well, they could and should compete for more than just a playoff spot within the division.
Boston Bruins: The Lightning’s Old Foe
As long as the Lightning are in the Atlantic Division, the Bruins will continue to terrorize them throughout the regular season. Something about the size, weight and defensive structure that the Bruins play with just shuts down the Lightning’s nightly gameplan and has done so for years.
With rosters that are largely identical to those of last year, there’s no reason to believe that the matchups this season will have too different of a result. Last year, the Bruins went 3-1 versus Tampa Bay while only coming up one point short of taking the Atlantic Division crown and the top seed in the playoffs. Even though the Lightning were able to beat the Bruins 4-1 in the 2018 playoffs, they will still have to fight to even go .500 against them like they did last year.
It would also not be wise for anyone in the Atlantic to underestimate the Bruins this year. They are always the team that people underrate at the start of the year before becoming the match-up no one wants when the playoffs arrive in April. If they can get healthy and build on a successful 2017-18 season, they will be a top threat to the Lightning.
Maple Leafs: The Great New NHL Rivalry
One can almost guarantee that the Lightning’s path to the Stanley Cup will run through Toronto this year. With a roster stacked with some of the top offensive talents in the world right now, the Maple Leafs have been tearing the league apart to start off the season, scoring 24 goals through five games.
It is worth noting, though, that the Maple Leafs are giving up a lot of goals themselves. While they should have this issue ironed out by the playoffs, it does beg the question of just how good their defensive corps will be come April. If they can gel as a unit, this team may be unstable in their quest for the Atlantic Division title, even for a group as talented as the Lightning.
If Tampa Bay wants to repeat as Atlantic Division champions, they will need to maximize every opportunity they have against Toronto. The good news is, no matter the outcome of the series or the division, every game will be fun to watch when these two offensive juggernauts face-off.
The Atlantic is Ready to Make Some Noise
In recent years, the Atlantic Division was seen as a bit of a letdown across the league. Despite having some high-talent teams, many came up with mediocre to bad results when they expected to be fighting for playoff contention at the start of the year.
The 2018-19 season may be the realization of all the talent that has been hoarded within the division over the last half-decade. Even if you don’t consider the three main threats to the Lightning listed above, there still are unknowns like the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens who have all the pieces in place to win a lot of games this year and threaten for the division title.
So, while the Lightning will have a tough time repeating as Atlantic Division champions this year, it will be due to more than just a great Maple Leafs team.
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.