There is a preponderance of evidence that tells any NHL fan that it is virtually impossible to compete for the Stanley Cup in back to back seasons.
History, albeit mostly recent, shows us that the odds are stacked against a team to have one long, successful playoff run in consecutive years. For the Tampa Bay Lightning that history seemed to be holding up during most of the first half of the current NHL season, especially when injuries to key players like Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson happened.
For a variety of reasons, including injuries, offensive output and a less than staggering power play, the Lightning were a very average team during the first two months of the 2015-16 season. Finishing both October and November with as many wins as losses dug a very big hole for the team. Coming into December, the Lightning were on the outside looking in for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Worried fans began to think the season was slipping away.
As the holiday season was winding down, the Lightning did a notch better in December by winning seven while losing five but that was still no reason to believe this team would right the ship in enough time to solidify a playoff spot.
To make matters worse for Lightning fans, the stated number one priority for General Manager, Steve Yzerman was re-signing Captain, Steven Stamkos to a long term contract was still not done. Adding fuel to the off-ice fire was the Jonathan Drouin fiasco. Happy freakin’ New Year Bolts fans!
On the plus side, injuries that had taken out Palat, Johnson, and Brian Boyle were healing and these three important cogs in the Lightning machine were beginning to look like the players that the fan base knew. A healthy Johnson means the team’s power play was going to get better. Getting a healthy Palat and Boyle was also a boon for the team’s penalty kill.
New Beginning in the New Year
Despite the Stamkos and Drouin matters off the ice, the team began to coalesce in 2016. Going 9 – 2, including a seven game winning streak, in January was huge. It made up some of the ground from the previously mentioned hole. It put them in second place in the Atlantic Division and certainly within striking distance of the cross-state Florida Panthers atop the division.
So, what needs to happen for the Lightning to begin the playoff push? If I had to put my finger on the one thing that has to be different in the remaining games for the Lightning to ensure a playoff spot and the chance for another long playoff run, look no further than the dynamic center, Tyler Johnson. Healing from the wrist injury suffered in the Stanley Cup Final against Chicago took its toll on Johnson and the team. Even when he came back from the injury, earlier in the season, he didn’t look like himself. But in the new year, with a little more than half the season gone, Johnson looks like the player America got to know during last season’s playoff run
For the Bolts, Johnson needs to find his playoff performance from last spring and summer. He is critically important to the success of the Lightning. He centers the second line and last season, his line (The Triplets Line) was the most productive offensive line in the entire NHL. The better his line is, the more effective the team’s first line centered by Stamkos will become.
The reason is quite simple. Most NHL teams have a shutdown line. A line of highly skilled defensive forwards who are tasked with shutting down the opponent’s top scoring line. One reason for the Triplets success last season was that opposing teams continued to focus their top defenders against Stamkos and his line. Lot of good it did them. Stamkos still scored more goals than anyone in the league not named Ovechkin.
When both of the top two Tampa lines are scoring, the problem for the other teams becomes picking their poison. Which line do they make the effort to stop? Johnson being healthy also helps the power play. With as wicked a snap shot as there is on the team, Johnson has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Add to that the speed he has to burn and this pesky forward wreaks havoc for their Eastern Conference foes.
Stamkos is in his usual spot of leading the team in goals despite the revolving door of line mates he has had to endure this season. Coach Jon Cooper may have found the right chemistry lining up Stammer with Palat and Vlad Namestnikov.
Now that he appears to be 100% healthy, Johnson finds himself with his Triplet pal, Nikita Kucherov who is battling Stamkos for the team lead in goals and leads the team in total points. Alex Killorn, the Harvard graduate makes up the third guy on the second line.
Having two lines that can score, having a power play that can rotate snipers, scorers and assist men like Stamkos, Kucherov, Johnson, Palat and Killorn will give fits to opposing penalty killers.
After three months of average play. After the Stanley Cup hangover, the Lightning now have one month of superior play under their belt. During February and March, the success of their team will be determined in no small part to the performance of one of their smallest players. The five foot eight inch, Johnson.
If he can stay healthy and revert back to the type of player he blossomed into last season, the sky is the limit for him as well as the Lightning.