It has been years since the Tampa Bay Lightning entered a season with such swagger.
Oh, sure there have been some good seasons. There was even that great one back in 2003-04 that produced the franchise’s sole Stanley Cup. But consider that at this time last year, the Bolts were a franchise that had scratched out a meager four post-season appearances in their 18 years of existence, and – beyond that one magical campaign – had eked out exactly one playoff series win.
What a difference a year can make.
The ownership is clearly revitalized, the front office reeks of success, and the bench has bunches of talent. Chalking up 11 victories in last year’s playoffs before finally losing a hard fought game seven in the Conference Final to the eventual Stanley Cup champions didn’t hurt their reputation either.
Now entering their 20th year in the NHL, few would argue that the Lightning are credibly dangerous.
Is this the year that the Bolts recapture the Southeast Division?
The Lightning in 2011-12
The Lightning surprised a lot of hockey fans last year as they shot up the regular season standings, and any doubting Thomases were likely made believers throughout the playoffs. After all, battling to within one game of the Stanley Cup Final has a way of inspiring faith.
As a result of last year’s successes, this season’s expectations are high. Even with his graduate degree in sports psychology, head coach Guy Boucher will have a much harder time selling any ‘David versus Goliath’ analogies this year.
Fortunately, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman and the team’s front office have done a good job holding the team together over the offseason. The signing of Steven Stamkos took on a whiff of melodrama in the media as negotiations dragged on, but in the absence of any offer-sheets from other NHL franchises the result was never in doubt.
Other key returnees include right-winger Teddy Purcell, defenceman Eric Brewer, and 41-year-old goaltender, Dwayne Roloson. Purcell’s impressive performance last year, particularly in the playoffs (17 points in 18 games) was a mirror of the team’s overall performance, and the 26-year-old Newfoundlander’s secondary scoring will be a key component of the Lightning’s success in 2011-12.
Yzerman also added up-and-comer defenceman Matt Gilroy, and goalie Mathieu Garon, who is reunited with Roloson after playing together for the Edmonton Oilers during the 2007-08 season.
Notable departures included Simon Gagne, Sean Bergenheim, and Mike Smith.
With the lineup largely set, there is precious little room for the Lightnings’ young prospects this year. Brett Connolly, the team’s top pick in the 2010 NHL draft (6th overall), may have the best chance, and some point to the entry-level contract that he just signed as evidence that the Lightning are interested in having him with the big club sooner rather than later.
Yzerman has said that there will not be a roster spot for a player whose only contribution is fighting.
At the beginning of their training camp, the Lightning sat $4 million below this year’s $64.3 million cap ceiling, according to CapGeek.com. That gives them room to make a key addition down the road this year, but the Lightning are well aware that the mercurial and talented Steve Downie and their young defensive stud Victor Hedman become restricted free agents next summer, and both might require more money to retain.
With the season predictions now rolling in, it’s clear that commentators are comfortable predicting another strong regular-season for the Lightning, one that propels them back into the playoffs.
But despite the Lightning’s successes, most experts believe that the Washington Capitals will take the Southeast Division for the fifth year running.
Rivalry with Washington
At the end of the 2010 regular season, the Lightning finished 41 points behind the Southeast champions Washington Capitals. Fast-forward to the spring of 2011, and the Caps championship was defined by the scant three points that separated themselves from Tampa Bay’s finest. And the result could easily have been reversed if Alex Ovechkin and company hadn’t matched the Bolts’ strong finish to the NHL season.
The Capitals took four of the six regular season contests between the teams, and outscored the Lighting seemingly decisive 19-10 margin.
“I don’t know if it was kind of a mockery of our system”, said Steven Stamkos of the Washington Capitals’ performance last year on February 4th.
During those six games, a defining theme was the Lightning’s use of the 1-3-1 defensive system. Washington won the first two matches handily, perhaps partly due to the Lightning still settling into Boucher’s new system. The teams split the the final four decisions, with Tampa shutting out Washington twice.
During a game played on February 4th last season, the Capitals repeatedly elected to hold the puck in their zone, deliberately baiting Tampa to send in its lone fore-checker.
“I don’t know if it was kind of a mockery of our system or a game plan, but they obviously had a couple days to prepare for the game and then that’s what they thought best,” Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos said after the match.
After their 5-2 victory, the Capitals admitted it was a purposeful tactic designed to frustrate their divisional rivals.
While the regular season made clear that there was a certain amount of bad blood between the divisional rivals, the fallout from the Lightning’s humiliating sweep of the Capitals during the second round of last year’s playoffs will set the tone for the coming season – even if each team publicly downplays the history in order to prevent handing dressing-room fodder to the other.
Neither club has performed well in the playoffs over their respective lifespans. The Capitals have often been horrific over their 37-year existence. Like the Lightning, they have made it to the Stanley Cup Final only once, but were swept by none-other than Steve Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 final.
More recently, despite the influx of individual talent in the post-lockout period, they have done precious little in the playoffs, winning only two playoffs series since returning to the ice in 2005.
The 2012 edition of the NHL Yearbook described last year’s four-game dispatching of the Capitals by the Lightning as “a strong indicator that the Caps may not be learning the lessons needed from painful losses in previous years.” That should be read as a damning assessment of the Capitals by the habitually positive publication.
With Washington increasingly desperate to achieve some sort of post-season respect, one could argue that they will focus on the playoffs. But no matter how little meaning a divisional title may carry, the Caps aren’t going to let another team snatch away the only title they have consistently been able to win without a fight.
The rising Bolts and frustrated Capitals are on a collision course in 2011-12.
Looking Past 2011-12
It turns out that the Bolts want far more than to continue their playoff mastery of the Capitals, or to win the Southeast Division this year, or even to earn a second Stanley Cup parade. The organization has established a far more ambitious goal for itself.
“Our aim is to become…like Detroit…that’s what we’re after.” Guy Boucher on Tampa Bay’s ambition.
“We are raising the bar, not necessarily to get more points, wins, or things like that. Our aim is to become one of those incredibly consistent organizations, like Detroit. That’s one of the most difficult things in sports. That’s what we’re after”, said Guy Boucher.
And the Lightning get an early opportunity to set the tone of their 2011-12 season. After opening their season against the Carolina Hurricanes on October 7th, they arrive in Boston for an Eastern Conference Final rematch on October 8th, followed by a visit to Washington on October 10th.
The Lightning’s home-opener occurs on October 17th, when they will face their cross-state rivals, the Florida Panthers.
Brent’s hockey writing has appeared in a variety of online and print media, including the Yahoo! Sports NHL blog, Puck Daddy, and USA Today magazines. He shoots left.