The Tampa Bay Lightning have risen from the depths of the Southeast Division and claimed a playoff spot in the newly formed Atlantic division. Tampa Bay lost their top line center for a good portion of the season, traded away their captain and still managed to make the playoffs in a divisional spot. Will this resilience lead them to their first Stanley Cup win since the 03-04 season?
Tampa Bay Lightning
(3rd in the Eastern Conference, 2nd in the Atlantic Division)
Preseason expectations: Tampa Bay had a terrible record during the lockout-shortened season last year. They finished 28th in the league, despite having the eventual Hart winner in Marty St. Louis and elite superstar forward Steven Stamkos. Their goaltending is what sunk the Lightning last season, as Lindback proved unable to handle the responsibilities required of a starting goaltender. Coming into this year, Tampa Bay was a wild card to predict, with most experts agreeing that they could be a contender if their goaltending held up.
How they got here: As predicted, the Lightning made the playoffs because their goaltending did a complete 180 from the previous year. Ben Bishop carried the team throughout most of the year, posting a 2.23 GAA and a .924 save percentage, both near the top of the league for goaltending stats. A career-defining performance from big defenseman Victor Hedman also helped the Lightning push to the top of the standings. After struggling to meet the expectations of his high draft position for years, Hedman has put up a surprising 55 points in 74 games, well surpassing his career numbers.
Key Players: C Steven Stamkos, G Ben Bishop, D Victor Hedman, LW Ondrej Palat
Major Moves: The biggest moves the Lightning made this season was trading away their captain, Marty St. Louis, to the New York Rangers in exchange for the Ranger’s captain, Ryan Callahan. It was the first trade in NHL history that involved two active captains for the respective teams. Callahan brings a different game to the ice than St. Louis does, but with the emergence of rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, as well as highly-touted prospect Jonathan Drouin waiting in the wings, the organization was able to comfortable trade their captain without too much worry.
Who they will face in the first round: The Tampa Bay Lightning will face the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. Both teams are more focused on utilizing speed and offense to win games, which should lead to an interesting, if unpredictable, series. Tampa Bay has dominated the season series between the two teams, earning seven out of the possible eight points.
How they will fare: Defensively, the Lightning may hold an edge over the Canadiens, but with the injury to Ben Bishop late in the regular season, it may not matter. This series will come down to goaltending. If Bishop misses the first round due to injury, Tampa Bay may put up a fight, but it will be futile in the end. Another wildcard in the series is the play of Steven Stamkos. Stamkos only has one year of playoff experience, but he was very productive in the 18 playoff games played that year. If Stamkos can regain the ability to score at will, his team may have a shot.
Prediction: Montreal in 6.
Conn Smythe Winner: In a surprising pick, Ryan Callahan will be the winner of the Conn Smythe trophy if the Lightning win the Cup. Callahan may not put up the points that Stamkos will during a long playoff run, but his tireless work ethic and willingness to sacrifice his body to block shots is just as valuable to a Stanley Cup victory.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner