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Opposition Research: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning return as the Penguins’ chief rival for the Eastern Conference crown.

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There are a few teams which could dethrone the Pittsburgh Penguins and end their two-year reign as Stanley Cup champions. At the top of the short list: the Tampa Bay Lightning. Two years ago, the Lightning had the Penguins on the brink of elimination. Today, they are even better.

Tamp Bay isn’t being bombarded with difficult opponents every night, so they are not worn down. The bottom half of the Atlantic Division is bad, and if it weren’t for a recent surge from the Florida Panthers, it would be even worse. Regardless, 102 points with 10 games remaining is impressive.

Forwards

Virtually every Lighnting box score features a point from their top line’s right winger Nikita Kucherov, the Art Ross trophy leader. Kucherov’s goal-scoring (36) is down minutely from his previous campaign, but his passing ability has greatly improved. His assist total (57) has increased by 13 from his previous career-high.

Kucherov flanks one of the league’s elite centers, Steven Stamkos. The pair represents two of the league’s top six scorers, but they haven’t been great defensively. Games open up when the two are on the ice. Although they create chances and convert a lot of them, Kucherov struggles to defend the point. Tampa Bay gives up the most shots when the two are on the ice.

So, that could be an opportunity for the Penguins.

The Lightning also features a ton of depth with their forwards. Veterans Chris Kunitz and Alex Killorn join tough young players Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point. Newly-acquired forward JT Miller completed his first career hat trick against Ottawa when he was given top line duty with Stamkos and Kucherov.

There is one gaping hole for the Lightning forwards. After Stamkos, Point, the third and fourth line center position is an area that may need some work. Since Vladislav Namestnikov‘s departure, Cedric Paquette and Anthony Cirelli have been sub-par manning the depth center vacancies. It has created issues with deeper teams down the middle. Assuming Ondrej Palat returns from injury in a few weeks, Tyler Johnson, who has been playing right wing, could move back to his natural position. That would create a dangerous three-center model for Jon Cooper‘s squad.

Injured? You need a lawyer. Call Joshua R. Lamm.

Defense and Penalty Kill

The Tampa blue line is now a solid six since the arrival of Ryan McDonagh. However, the unit hasn’t been great recently. The Lightning have given up 26 goals in the last six games, and many of the goals have been due to the defensive unit’s struggles getting the puck out of the zone and failure to disrupt passing lanes. A concrete example occurred on David Pastrnak‘s 1st Period Goal, Saturday.

The positioning on the boards was textbook. However, Mikhail Sergachev was too far to the far wall. That allowed David Pastrnak to cut the seam during the D-to-D pass after the puck was pried from the boards. In an attempt to recover, Chris Kunitz couldn’t defend the pass from Torey Krug to the slot.

These issues are amplified on their penalty kill which ranks 26th in the league but has been even worse recently, giving up power play goals in 13 of their last 15 outings. The unit has given up multiple powerplay goals in back-to-back contests.

Another opening for the Penguins.

Goaltending

Andrei Vasilevskiy is tired, he admitted it. He posted a .900 save percentage or worse in four of the last five games. He’s playing a lot of hockey. Five of his last seven starts have gone into overtime. Before that stretch of games, Vasilevskiy was atop many Vezina leaderboards.

Wrap

Tampa Bay might have the best offensive unit in the league. When healthy, they can roll four solid lines, and the defense can shoot too. There are issues defensively which include the forecheck, starting the rush and on the penalty kill.

Depending on the playoff seeding, one of those teams vying for the final wildcard spot could give them a scare. Toronto would be a better match-up for the Bolts.

A 2016 Eastern Conference Finals rematch could be fun, though.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. il'ja

    March 19, 2018 at 5:43 am

    This is excellent, though sentences like “Two years ago, the Lightning had the Penguins on the brink of elimination. Today, they are even better…” are pretty terrifying. My only response is that I just rewatched the 2016 Tampa series – clearly the most difficult of that Cup run – and I can’t help but wonder if our 2018 Pens aren’t also *better*, or at least *could be better* than the 2016 club by the time the Conference Finals roll around.

    Brassard learning on the fly, Sid’s line getting in sync, Sheahan flying under the radar, and a healthy, rested, deeply experienced SCPlayoff goalie Murray doing his best brick wall imitation.

    I say this because each of these last two years, the Pens D has been maligned as ‘not up to the task’ of handling the physical Rangers/Caps/Sharks/Preds – take your pick – and yet somehow (magic or miracles?) played lots of shut-down hockey. We remember the Sharks getting their SECOND SOG of the 3rd period of G6 with 45 seconds left. We remember the Preds scoring ZERO goals over games 5&6 last year. And, to the point, we remember the Pens outskating the Bolts in Games 6&7 in 2016. I’m not just saying ‘the Pens have shown they know how to win’, I AM saying “they’ve been showing it for years now.” This year’s version of the PENS has something to prove and you can see it: Sid’s got his pissed-off look; Geno’s wreaking havoc all over the ice; Horny is a Nordic Ice Beast and the thought that there’s a 3-PEAT waiting for them isn’t lost on them.

    Tampa, this year, will again be the most difficult matchup (unless the Bruins get through), but they’ll just be another step on the way to the Cup. Great write-up. Thanks for checking our enthusiasm, but until somebody proves otherwise, to get to the Cup you gotta go through Pittsburgh. Go Pens!

    • Dan Kingerski

      March 19, 2018 at 8:14 am

      Great reply!

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