The Tampa Bay Lightning are trying to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and as such, had to go through the grind in a short offseason to reach the ultimate goal. With the lineup they have and their excellent cap management, they’re now the favorite once again.
In the battle of Florida against the red-hot Panthers, many picked the Lightning’s #1 rival. We were all looking forward to it, and in the end, the difference was goaltending, and Andrei Vasilevskiy was a difference-maker. He shut out the Panthers in Game Six, and that’s when he started to reach that other level that he’s reached before in the playoffs. He was tested by the Panthers but he was more than up for the challenge.
Next up were the flawed Carolina Hurricanes. They had the best defense in the league but not the best goalie tandem. Tampa outscored the Canes 14-9. That’s the thing about Tampa; they can outscore you and become as stingy as any defensive club in the NHL. When Tampa won Game Five 6-4, going up 3-1 in the series, it was all over at that point. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos each had two goals, and Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point had two points each. The balance that Tampa has is unparalleled currently in the league.
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When the Lightning were going to play the Islanders, this series was destined to be a barn-burner. It was the last go-round for Nassau Coliseum and all of its quirks in playoff games, and it possibly spelled the end of the line for Tampa. The Islanders tried to take out Kucherov, but they didn’t get the job done. He played in Game Seven, and Vasilevskiy was tremendous and the Lightning defense, led by Ryan McDonagh and his assist on the Yanni Gourde short-handed goal sent Barry Trotz’s team packing to Jones Beach, and the Lightning were back in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Lightning can stretch out the ice in the offensive zone, and even the best top four in the league would have trouble with that. Montreal’s is solid, and they log huge minutes, and the worry is will they run out of gas as the Islanders did in that last game?
Tampa will wait you out like a heavyweight champ who knows he can win on the scorecard and doesn’t need to risk winning by knockout. They will be protective of Kucherov’s minutes because of his possible shoulder injury, and they have a few other banged-up players as well. They will go all out in Game One, at home, in front of a packed crowd. This won’t be a Cup in a bubble, and that’s a big advantage for the home team.
I can see this series going the distance, and Tampa wouldn’t be worried about playing a Game Seven at home. They believe they’ll win that every time.