Lightning Clinch Playoffs After Rollercoaster Week

It’s amazing the emotional highs and lows that can occur for a team over the course of eight days. From Mar. 10 until Mar. 18, the Tampa Bay Lightning experienced every conceivable emotion that a team can feel during the regular season. The week started with a shootout victory against the Montreal Canadiens that gave the Lightning a 10-game point streak and ended with them clinching a playoff spot after a victory against the Edmonton Oilers. However, the time between these victories was tumultuous and raised some important questions about the playoff future of the team.

Lightning Playing Down to Their Opponents

Sometimes a team can be caught looking ahead to their next big game before handling the opponent in front of them. This clearly seemed to be the case when the Lightning took on the Ottawa Senators on Mar. 13, the last game before a big meetup with the Boston Bruins later in the week. Not only did the Lightning lose this game seven to four, they barely looked ready to play. If not for a herculean performance by J.T. Miller, who posted his first career hat trick, the Lightning could have easily lost the game by five goals.

J.T. Miller Lightning
Despite a three-goal game by newly acquired J.T. Miller, the Lightning still lost to the Ottawa Senators seven to four on Mar. 13th. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

After the bad loss, the Lightning had nearly four-days off to prepare for the Bruins. With such a poor showing against the Senators, this break should have allowed the team to rest and regroup before taking on their biggest rivals in the Atlantic. Instead, after these extra days of rest, the team appeared to stay on the beach instead of returning to the ice.

Lightning Weren’t Ready For the Bruins

There’s no way to make a positive spin about the game the Lightning played the Bruins on Mar. 17th. Not only did they lose 3-0, their first time being shutout this season, they at no point looked competitive or even interested in their opponents. After a season of finding a way to grind out tough wins, the Lightning simply looked lost on the ice. They were unable to generate scoring opportunities through the Bruins shut-down defense, effectively giving Tuukka Rask an easy shutout. In their own end, the penalty kill completely failed them, showcasing a recurring problem for the better part of three months.

Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat
Since top defensive forward Ondrej Palat to injury in January, the Lightning have struggled on the penalty kill and in their own zone. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The loss to Boston was more than a typical bad game for Tampa Bay. It was easily their worst play of the season and is the sort of game that will sow seeds of doubt throughout an organization. On a night that should have had a playoff atmosphere, only the Bruins showed up ready to fight for the top spot in the Atlantic. This also highlighted the recent lackadaisical play of the Lightning, who, despite having a 10-game points streak prior to the two losses, were struggling to pull away from generally mediocre opponents. While winning in overtime is still a regular season victory, it doesn’t bode well when the team is unable to put away the bottom teams in their division.

Back-To-Back Was the Medicine the Lightning Needed

If the Lightning had to sit and wait for two or three days before their next game after the Bruins loss, the tension could have easily torn up the locker room. However, in a convenient twist of fate, they had to wait less than 24 hours for their next game against the Oilers. One could have easily expected the team to write this game off as a loss after their poor showing the night prior, but they managed to pull themselves together and grind out a win against a pesky Oilers team. Even after giving up a fluke goal 14 seconds into the game, the Lightning kept composed and played the type of game they were known for all season long.

Louis Domingue #70, Tampa Bay Lightning
Backup goaltender Louis Domingue played a stellar game against the Oilers, only giving up a fluke goal 14 seconds into the game. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With their spot in the playoffs now assured, the Lightning will have the opportunity to rest overworked players like goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy throughout the end of the season. After their poor showing against Boston, though, the team has long ways to go in order to prepare for the playoffs. With issues like a struggling penalty kill and just a general dip in play this March, the Lightning are starting to feel like a team that may have peaked too early this season. Only time will tell if this is the case, but with the playoffs looming, the team needs to build on their positive performance against the Oilers in order to end their regular season strong.