Through this opening stanza of the 2017/18 NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning has been the most impressive team by far. With a 13-2-2 record from 17 games and a mighty fine +24 goal differential, as well as nearly identical home and away records, the Bolts look indestructible and are already tipped to win the Stanley Cup at the end of the season. However, Tampa Bay happens to be in the treacherous Eastern Conference and haven’t had much postseason luck in recent years, so are the Lightning legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup this year?
Set to succeed, but others will have a say
Tampa Bay has quite a young, very talented roster that looks primed for a deep run in the playoffs. Head coach Jon Cooper has set up a team that displays good hockey fundamentals and execute slick and offensive game plans. Their goaltending has been surprisingly strong, as shown by NHL.com, the back lines are made up of consistent blueliners who play strong defense-first hockey alongside almost certain Norris Trophy finalist Victory Hedman, and the forward lines are deep with incredible talents. It’s very difficult to isolate a weakness when the Bolts are on the ice, so much so that as of Nov. 13, they were 7/1 favorites to win the Stanley Cup at +700 with Betway.
Set to win it all this season, the only foreseeable issue now, without another injury blight striking, is the lack of consistent postseason games clocked in by some of the team’s stars. When you look at the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins – gunning for the hat-trick of Stanley Cup wins – Washington Capitals, and New York Rangers, the Bolts are at a slight disadvantage.
Then there’s the Western Conference to contend with. The Chicago Blackhawks reinforced their team over the summer and look primed for a deep run after getting creative to bring back Brandon Saad, per CBS Sports, the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings have become near-immaculate defensive teams, and the St. Louis Blues are dominating the entire conference. Tampa Bay is deservedly favored to go all the way, but this is the NHL, so there’ll always be tough competition to contenders from somewhere.
It’s all coming together for the Lightning
Over the last six seasons, the Tampa Bay Lightning have flirted with the playoffs, even going all the way to the final in 2015 – only to meet the mighty Chicago Blackhawks at the peak of their powers – but despite being tipped to go all the way in many seasons, they just haven’t been able to do it. One of the major problems behind their inconsistency recent times have been Steven Stamkos’ battles with illness and injury.
Once one of the premier snipers in the NHL, Stamkos has missed major games and huge chunks of seasons due to a range of injuries; from a serious blood clot to a nasty knee injury, and a horrifying leg break in 2013 when he slid into a goal post, Stamkos was understandably “sick” of his injury streak, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times. But now Tampa Bay’s captain and talisman is healthy once more, orchestrating his teammates from the faceoff circle to the locker room and standing as the NHL’s top point scorer with 30 points in 17 games.
A huge area that Tampa Bay struggled with last season was goaltending, with neither Ben Bishop nor Andrei Vasilevskiy dealing with the tandem well. With Bishop traded to the Los Angeles Kings and the suddenly relevant again Peter Budaj coming to Florida, Tampa Bay set themselves up with a perfect starter-backup duo with the young Russian taking his chance in the crease with both hands. After 14 games, Vasilevskiy had 12 wins, one loss, and one overtime loss alongside a mighty .928 save percentage and decent 2.44 goals against average. Another huge boost has been the shrewd summer transactions, making sure that the Vegas Golden Knights only took bottom-four defenseman Jason Garrison and signing Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi to stack their lines.
While the Bolts missed Stamkos and Ryan Callahan and struggled in front of the rotating goalies, they ultimately missed out on the postseason by just one point. The big absences, however, did allow Nikita Kucherov to prove himself as one of the elite level wingers of the NHL, and now that he has Stamkos by his side on every shift, his star power has gone through the roof. With a shooting percentage of 23.9, 16 goals and 13 assists, second only to Stamkos in points, the Russian has stayed true to his play of last season and has formed what is currently the deadliest duo in the NHL.
Tampa Bay simply too talented?
It’s very hard to look past the depth of those Lightning forward lines with the likes of Vladislav Namestnikov, Kunitz, Ryan Callahan, Alex Killorn, and Brayden Point littered around as well as the team being able to play ‘The Triplets’ – Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Tyler Johnson – all on different even-strength lines for an offensive punch regardless of what unit is on the ice. Ranking second in goals scored (68) with the best goals per game rate (4.0), the second-best powerplay percentage (27.9%), and the seventh-least goals against (44), Tampa Bay is very clearly one of the, if not the very best team in the NHL right now.
Believe the hype, as it’s all finally coming together for the Amalie Arena residents this season.