For much of the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have occupied the top spot in the Atlantic Division and in the East overall. However, over the course of the last couple weeks, the Lightning have stumbled. And the timing could not be any worse.
The Lightning are still the top scoring team in the league, notching 273 goals through 76 games. They are led by the likes of Nikita Kucherov with his 38 goals and 96 points overall. Brayden Point (28 goals) and Steven Stamkos (27 goals) round out the top three scorers on the team.
However, they are just 3-4 in their past seven, scoring just 20 goals. Seven of which came in one game against the Islanders, who happen to be the worst defensive team in the league. Three times in that span they were held to one goal or less. Now, they face the task of going up against two of the top teams in the league in three of the next four. They play Boston twice, starting Thursday, and the current leader in the race for the President’s Trophy, the Nashville Predators.
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The two games with Boston are perhaps their biggest of the season. During this seven-game stretch, the Lightning dropped a 3-0 decision to the Bruins who now sit just one point behind the Lightning in the East with a game in hand. This is despite facing a bevy of injuries to key players that threaten to derail them. Even worse for the Lightning is the fact that the Bruins are getting healthier. They expect to have Zdeno Chara back for Thursday’s showdown with others to follow shortly thereafter.
One positive for the Lightning is they expect captain Steven Stamkos back Thursday as well after missing the loss against the Coyotes. However, they will still be without trade deadline acquisition, Ryan McDonagh for the foreseeable future.
The importance of maintaining the top spot is the difference between facing the Maple Leafs in the first round or a team like the Panthers. Of course, having home ice through the Eastern Conference Finals is a huge plus, but avoiding the Maple Leafs in the first round is the biggest coupe to the top spot. The Bruins wouldn’t mind avoiding the Leafs either given the fact that they have struggled against them this season, going 1-3. In addition, a quick series in the first round for the Bruins would help give extra rest to players coming back from injury. Same for Tampa. Of course, the President’s Trophy is also still in play for both teams.
The bottom line is the Lightning have to find their game. The one that got them to 106 points, two shy of their franchise record. In order for them to win their first championship since the 03-04 season, the Lightning need the top seed. A win over the Bruins in Boston on Thursday is a great place to start.