The Tampa Bay Lightning have been on quite the roller coaster during the 2015-16 NHL regular season. There have been the highs, the lows, the twists and the turns. At times, the team has been at full speed and not showing any sign of slowing down (see the team’s nine-game winning streak from February 18 through March 5). At other times, the season has felt like it has come off the tracks (see the team’s record the last eight games and the current injury report). Despite not taking the Atlantic Division crown, the Lightning clinched a playoff spot on April 5 and is on its way to the postseason for the third straight year.
Even Playing Field: The Start of the NHL Playoffs
When the playoffs begin, the slate is wiped clean. There are 16 teams each “starting over” and just 16 wins from a Stanley Cup. However, what has happened in the weeks leading up to the playoffs cannot be ignored for any team and a realistic look at that time frame for the Lightning gives cause for concern. The team has been plagued with injuries to key players, inconsistent at times and simply unable to develop any momentum heading into their first round matchup against the Detroit Red Wings.
The Turning Point: Stralman Lost to Injury
A March 25 game against the New York Islanders was a turning point for the Lightning during a stretch run to the playoffs. At the time, the Lightning were in a tight battle with the Florida Panthers for first place in the Atlantic Division and despite being .500 in its previous 10 games leading up to the home contest against the Islanders, the playoffs were just within reach (the Lightning had ended the month of February on a seven-game win streak that stretched to nine games at the first part of March before a disappointing loss to the Flyers on March 7) During the March 25 contest, the Lightning’s offense was firing on all cylinders, as the team defeated the Islanders, 7-4. Although it was a big win at an important time, the game was a loss in the sense that Anton Stralman suffered a broken left fibula. Stralman, together with Victor Hedman, forms one of the league’s most dominant defensive pairings, and Stralman’s game is one that always seems to provide the team with a sense of calmness in the most uncertain situations. In fact, one could make a strong argument that outside of Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman, there is not another player on the roster that means more to the team.
Stamkos Lost to Rare Blood Clot Condition
On April 2, the Lightning faced off against the New Jersey Devils in the last regular season home game against the New Jersey Devils. Just before game time, it was reported that Steven Stamkos would not be in the lineup. It was not until after the Lightning victory (3-1) that the biggest news of the night would be revealed. During Steve Yzerman’s post-game press conference, he announced that Stamkos would be out one to three months with a blood clot near his right collarbone (specifically, vascular thoracic outlet syndrome), which required surgery. Ironically enough, this rare condition was also the same one that kept goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy out of the lineup to start the season. Despite a below-average season by Stamkos standards (just 64 points in 77 games), the timing of the injury could not have been worse. At that point, the Lightning had just lost Stralman and was still on the outside looking in at the NHL playoff picture. With a recovery prognosis of one to three months, an ambitious return puts Stamkos back in the lineup by the beginning of May, while there are others that believe Stamkos will not return to the team and has played his last game in a Lightning uniform (with his pending unrestricted free agency looming absent signing a deal with the team this summer).
An Interesting Debate: Will Drouin Return?
The announcement about Stamkos’s health condition and his extended absence from the Lightning’s lineup also sparked discussions about the possible return of one of the team’s most gifted young talents. Chances are that if you stood outside of the Amalie Arena in Tampa before a home game during the months of January and February and spoke to fans, they would have told you it was more likely that a snow storm would hit the area in April than Jonathan Drouin return to the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, those fans would be wrong.
On Jan. 3, after Drouin’s agent acknowledged a trade request made back in November 2015 and his refusal to continue playing with the Lightning (or its AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch), the hockey world was ablaze with rumors running rampant about where Drouin would go. He was suspended without pay pending a potential move. However, the NHL trade deadline came and went, and Drouin had not been moved. Some questioned Yzerman’s motivation or inaction at the deadline, and many expected that Drouin would be traded in the offseason. The one certainty seemed to be that Drouin would not return to the team.
Never Say Never: Drouin Returns, Lightning Clinch Home Ice in Playoffs
On March 11, Drouin returned to the Syracuse Crunch after a formal announcement was made that he had agreed to return to the AHL after speaking to Yzerman about the situation. While the specific content of that conversation is unknown, one can imagine it came with an apology from the young player and an acknowledgement of his intention to return to the franchise and become a better player and teammate. Even the harshest critic of Drouin should recognize that making that phone call is a major step in the right direction.
It was with the Stamkos situation (and Drouin’s performance in Syracuse) that the once unthinkable became a reality.
On April 7, Drouin returned to the Lightning lineup for a road game against the New Jersey Devils. Drouin would go on to score the game-winning tally and the victory gave the Lightning home ice for the first round of the playoffs. Drouin appears to have returned to the club with a better attitude and he is prepared to help the team any way that he can— the things that seemed to be holding him back on his first go around with the club.
Drouin is a world-class talent and with the injuries plaguing the Lightning, the stage has been set for him to make a truly meaningful impact in the playoffs that could change his future with this franchise (and in this league).
Injury Plague Continues: Johnson Hurt on Questionable Play
Despite the feel good story created by Drouin’s return to the Lightning lineup, the harsh reality of things is that this team has a long way to go in order to return to the Stanley Cup Final. In addition to the long-term injuries to Stralman and Stamkos, Ryan Callahan (upper body injury) and Victor Hedman (upper body injury) are day-to-day. Nikita Kucherov sat out Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, after blocking a shot with his foot. Kucherov is also considered to be day-to-day and Callahan, Hedman and Kucherov are expected to return for Game 1 of the first round.
During Saturday’s final regular season game against the Montreal Canadiens, a 5-2 loss, Tyler Johnson was cross-checked from behind by Canadiens defenseman Greg Pateryn, in a dirty play away from the puck that sent Johnson head first into the boards on his left side. Johnson was on the ice for a while before being helped off and he did not return. There were concerns about a concussion (or neck or shoulder injury), but it appears that Johnson may also be available for Game 1.
Where Do They Go From Here? Lightning Depth Must Rally to Prevail
In an article I wrote on March 16 (Consistency is Key: Lightning Must Win Now), I called a deep playoff run for the Lightning “likely.” Although this was before the Stralman broken leg, or the Stamkos blood clot, this is still a team that can be very dangerous if they can get through the Red Wings and move on to Rd. 2. In order to make a deep playoff run, a hot goalie is key, and despite the injuries and inconsistencies the Lightning has faced offensively this season, Ben Bishop has been consistently great from start to finish and the team has the players to make a push. Despite a roller-coaster season mired with uncertainty, inconsistency, and at times, frustrating results, all of that can be a distant memory when the puck drops for Game 1 against the Red Wings. The depth of this team has been its strength, and a focus of Yzerman throughout his tenure as the GM of the team. Injuries to players like Johnson and Kucherov (although they may return), mean that players like Valtteri Filppula, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat must step up (and of course, Drouin). Killorn had a truly great playoffs last year, and an encore this offseason is needed to make a deep run.
The injuries and inconsistency that plagued the club through the last part of the season is now what will be the team’s test moving forward. After being two losses short of the Stanley Cup last year, coupled with the obstacles the team has overcome throughout this season, do not count the Lightning out as the team faces its biggest challenge to date.