AFTER THE DUST HAS SETTLED FOR THE LIGHTNING : FEBRUARY 8
By Leo Haggerty

Before I begin, Lightning fans, I want you to remember the following acronym and it’s KB3.  That may be the saying that turns the season around for the Bolts.

Let me set the stage for you.  Tampa Bay has lost the first two games of a four-game home stand.  The first to the Boston Bruins 4-3 giving up a goal with less than one second to go to the second period.  The second was a thrashing by the Ottawa Senators 5-2.

In both games the Bolts scored the opening goal of the contest then let it slip away.  In the third game, against the Anaheim Ducks, the start of the game was different.  The Ducks scored the first goal and that was countered by a Jonathan Drouin’s 15th marker just over a minute later.

The Bolts took a 2-1 lead with a one-timer by Alex Killorn for his 16th score of the season but the Ducks got even in the third period.  Ryan Getzlaf found the back of the net for his 8th goal just past the four-minute mark and, even though the Lightning peppered Ducks goalie Jonathan Bernier with a game total of 32 shots to 16 by Anaheim on Lightning netminder Ben Bishop, the 2-2 score stood up at the end of regulation.

In overtime, Tampa Bay continued its assault on the Anaheim goal with five more shots but came up empty after the allotted 5 minutes of play.  That moved both teams to the Shootout phase.

After Brayden Point lit the lamp for the Lightning with the first shot of the Shootout, the Ducks scored on both their shots sandwiched around a Drouin misfire. Tampa Bay now needed to score or go home with only one point of a possible two as well as looking at the end of any playoff possibilities with a third straight home defeat.

The Bolts needed a score to keep the Shootout going and a stop at the other end of the ice.  Then, to win, they needed a goal and another stop. Here’s where KB3 comes to the rescue.

Forward Nikita Kucherov solved the first part of the quadratic equation by scoring to keep the Bolts on life support.  The second part of the puzzle was completed with Bishop stoning the Ducks Rickard Rikell.

Half way home.  Lightning forward Brian Boyle put the guys in the dark sweaters up with a goal through the five hole.  That put completing the fourth stage for the win, and a much-needed and valuable two points, squarely in Bishop’s lap.

And #30 did not disappoint.  He deflected a shot by Corey Perry over the crossbar sealing a 3-2 Shootout win and giving the home team some much needed momentum going into the last game of the home stand against the Los Angeles Kings.

That momentum finally showed up in the second period because the Lightning were being pressured unmercifully by the LA fore-checkers.  After allowing the West Coast squad 19 shots in the opening stanza,  Tampa Bay still managed to cling to a 1-0 lead when Drouin put the biscuit in the basket at the 7:46 mark.

From the start of the second period until the end of the game, Tampa Bay was able to accomplish two things that led to the victory.  First, the Bolts closed ranks in front of Bishop especially the Blue Liners.  Los Angeles was only able to manage nine shots the rest of the way and “Big Ben” pitched a shutout.

Second, the Bolts offense showed up in a big way.  Goals by Kucherov (20th and 21st), Braydon Coburn (2nd) and Gabriel Dumont (1st) added to Drouin’s first period marker.  That gave the Bolts a much needed two points in a 5-0 romp over the Kings.

That leaves the Bolts only 6 points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division.  With just over a quarter of the regular season games remaining, anything is possible in the NHL.  Tampa Bay can catch fire and make the playoffs or the Lightning can go into a funk and be hitting the links a lot sooner than they anticipated.

Here are my 3 reasons why the Lightning will make the playoffs and my 3 reasons why Tampa Bay will be playing on the golf course and not still on the ice in May.

WHY THE LIGHTNING MAKE THE PLAYOFFS

1-Goalie/Goalies Stand On Their Head

The quickest way to turn a bad season into a great season is for one or both of your goalies to get hot.  If Bishop and/or Andrei Vasilevskiy go nuclear, they can carry a team for a ten-game stretch.  Right now, that’s exactly the shot in the arm that the Bolts need.

Let’s just look at the Columbus Blue Jackets for a minute.  Coach John Tortorella’s bunch went on a 16-consecutive game victory run.  That propelled them from near the bottom to the top of the National Hockey League’s Metropolitan Division.  The Ohio skaters have since cooled down but that  has put them in a solid position to make the post-season.  That success was spearheaded by the play of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

#72 has posted a 29-10-3 record when he’s between the pipes and has a stellar Goals Against Average of 2.18 along with a .925 Save Percentage.  That’s up from a career GAV of 2.49 and a SP of .918.  You can plainly see that Bobrovsky is having a career year in net for the Blue Jackets

It all starts or stops in goal and, if either #30 and/or #88 start to consistently play at high level, look for Tampa Bay to make a move up in the Atlantic Division standings.  Now the playoffs are in sight.

2-Return from the IR

Let me pose this question to you.  Take the top goal scorer and top goalie along with  the “heart and soul” player of any National Hockey League team for an extended period of time and tell where they are in the standings.  Give up?  It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning and they’re tied for the cellar-dweller spot of the Eastern Conference with the Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabers.

Up to this point, the Bolts have resembled a MASH unit.  Of the 54 games to date, C Steven Stamkos has only played in 17 with RW Ryan Callahan not much better with 18 and goalie Bishop seeing only 29 games in net.

Bishop has already returned and has been largely responsible, with an overtime save and a shutout, for securing the last four points for Tampa Bay.  If they get Stamkos and Callahan back soon, all the offensive firepower is back for a stretch run to cross the playoff finish line.

3-Wake Up Call

The Bolts, to a man, need to start playing with a sense of urgency.  Yes, I get the fact that the Bolts are only six points out of a playoff berth.  That’s the easy part.  The hard part is that Tampa Bay has to leapfrog five teams to make the post season.

With teams able to secure one point for a regulation tie even though they lose in overtime, it will be a daunting task to accomplish.  Jon Cooper’s crew not only have to garner points but they need regulation wins especially against division and conference opponents to keep them from adding a much coveted point.

In my humble opinion, Tampa Bay needs to amass 46 more  point the rest of the way to secure a spot in the dance.  If everyone in the NHL East stays bunched up, that total will drop to the mid-to-high 30s.

Still, that’s going 15-6-6 the rest of the way and that may just get you in the conversation.  Hard, yes, but doable if the Bolts play with enthusiasm for 60 minutes every night.

WHY THE LIGHTNING DO NOT MAKE THE PLAYOFFS

1-Power Outage

Last season, Stamkos (30 & 36) and Callahan (10 & 18) combined for 46 goals and 94 points.  This season #91 (9 & 11) and #24 (2 & 2) have a total of 11 goals and 24 points between them plus no idea when those totals will start to advance.

The Bolts need to get goals from unexpected sources or a couple of regulars need to start having career years.  Either way, 94 points are a lot to make up from a team that has had to use so many different players.

Not getting those goals puts added pressure on your goalie.  Not longer holding a team to a couple of goal now becomes problematic.

If Stamkos and Callahan don’t make it back, and no one can pick up the scoring slack, the Bolts will probably be up the crick without a paddle if you know what I mean.

2-MASH Unit Continues

The Bolts don’t make the playoffs if Stamkos and Callahan cannot get back on the ice this season or if another major injury occurs especially to a goaltender.  That would be catastrophic to the Tampa Bay playoff hopes and would probably sound the death knell for any post season play.

3-Hockey Gods Say No

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, it just isn’t the year.  Pucks that normally go in hit the post and bounce away.  Shots that the goaltender stops easily find a way into the back of the net.  Passes that ricochet off the boards to a friendly Lightning stick now go to the opposition.

This could be that year for the Tampa Bay organization.  After two deep runs in pursuit of the Stanley Cup, this just could be the year when the hockey gods say not this year, guys.  For that, there is no defense.

All I know is that, with the Division races so tight for making the playoffs especially in the Atlantic, we should see some playoff-level intensity during the regular season.