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.
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.
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.
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.
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.