Despite the Boston Bruins posting a 3-1 series lead against the Toronto Maple Leafs in their Round 1 playoff match-up, Toronto managed to win two straight games and claw their way back into the series, forcing a pivotal Game 7 on Wednesday night. The winner of this game will get to face off against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Round 2, who have been watching their Atlantic Division rivals duke it out from the comfort of their own homes after they eliminated the New Jersey Devils in five games.
While it’s hard to complain about a 4-1 series victory in any round of the playoffs, the Lightning making quick work of New Jersey does provide a unique challenge for the team. For the first time since their scheduled break back in January, the Bolts will have experienced a full week off from playing NHL hockey as they wait for Boston and Toronto to wrap-up their series. So, while they will be well rested, this creates a number of other problems that the team must address in order to avoid a slow start in their second round match-up.
Lightning Looked Rusty After Their Last Week Off
The last time the Lightning had a week off from hockey, it produced some of the teams’ worst play from the first half of the season. Prior to the break, they lost 5-1 to the Calgary Flames in a game that they looked disinterested in playing. After returning from their break, they would lose to the Vegas Golden Knights 4-1 and the Minnesota Wild 5-2. In both games, the Lightning were out of sync and largely non-competitive, only putting up a weak fight against their opponents. It took until the third game after their break, a shut-out victory against the Chicago Blackhawks, for the Lightning to get back to the dominant play that carried them throughout the start of the year.
Understandably, taking a week off in the middle of the season can cause some serious disruption to the normal workflow that players get used to. However, unlike back in January, the Lightning won’t have two or three games to get back into their rhythm. If they start slow in Game 1, the Bolts could easily find themselves in a one or two goal hole that they will have to try and dig themselves out of. While they were able to make comebacks routinely in the regular season, this is a more difficult endeavor during the playoffs, especially since they will be facing an excited opponent who will still be riding the high of their Game 7 victory.
Rest or Momentum: Which Matters More for Bolts?
Another issue for the Lightning will be the likely loss of their momentum after the impromptu break. Even if momentum is a debated subject, there is some truth as to its effect on a team. When things are going well, players are able to trust their instincts in order to make that perfect play, instead of doubting their abilities and attempting to out-think the opponent and ultimately themselves.
Oftentimes, when a team is forced to sit and wait for their next match-up in the playoffs, it causes all of their positive momentum to dissipate while their opposition gains more confidence in their abilities after grinding out a hard-fought victory.
For example, during their 2015 run to the Stanley Cup Final, it took the Lightning seven games to close out their first-round series against the Detroit Red Wings. After they did so, however, they rode that wave of emotions and momentum into Round 2, where they took a 3-0 series lead against the higher-seeded and rested Montreal Canadiens. Once the Canadiens found their footing, they were able to take two games from Tampa Bay but they were ultimately too far behind in the series to make a complete comeback.
If the Lightning want to avoid a fate similar to that of Montreal in 2014, they will have to regain the momentum of their previous series before their opponents can take a game from them. The simplest way to do so is to go out and score a goal in the opening minutes of Game 1 in order to set a tone for the series and bring back that momentum that helped carry them to a victory in the opening round.
A Well Rested Lightning Squad Should Win
Ultimately, if the Lightning truly are the best team in the East, like their ranking implies, a week of rest should bring more benefit than harm. As long as they are able to return to playoff form immediately in Game 1, the extra few days off will provide a needed reprieve from the grind of the NHL playoffs. If they are unable to continue the same dominant gameplay that led them to dispatch New Jersey in five games, however, they could quickly find themselves down a game or two against a hungry opponent who had to fight to reach the semifinals.