I got to see the Tampa Bay Lightning play for the first time Thursday night. This is significant because the Penguins are the obvious favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference after doing it the past two seasons. In my opinion, the Lightning might be one of the few teams in the East who can challenge the Penguins.
After seeing them defeat Pittsburgh, 5-4, my feeling got a bit stronger.
The Penguins were on the back end of a back-to-back situation and traveled from Washington to Tampa Bay overnight. They were going to be a bit fatigued and they played their back up goaltender, Antti Niemi, in the game. It’s fair to say this wasn’t a Penguins team at 100% but that didn’t stop the Lightning from asserting their dominance.
In looking at the Lightning, the team is full of guys who can flat out play hockey at a very high level.
Led by Steven Stamkos, the Lightning have tons of goal scoring prowess. Stamkos missed the majority of last year with an injury. He will be hungry to make up for lost time by scoring lots of goals, as he did Thursday, and help push his team over the hump. Remember, the Lightning went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015 and made the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, losing to the Penguins in seven games despite holding a 3-2 lead.
Nikita Kucherov is one of the best young goal scorers in the game now. They’ve got young guys like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn. They added former Penguin Chris Kunitz on a one-year deal in the offseason to give them another experienced veteran who has been through the ringer and won four Stanley Cups, leading all active players.
It doesn’t even end there.
The defense is pretty impressive. Victor Hedman is one of the premier blue liners in the NHL. They found Anton Stralman to be a piece they greatly needed. They added Dan Girardi to be another veteran presence who has seen his fair share of winning in the past.
Their goalie situation is in pretty good hands, too. Last season, when it was clear they weren’t going to make the playoffs, they moved goaltender Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings. He was sent to the Dallas Stars in the offseason and is now their starter. They were sold on young netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Vasilevskiy is a former first round draft choice in 2012 of the Lightning. He had been battling to get the chance to be the number one with Bishop being a potential franchise goalie. In the 2016 Conference Finals, Ben Bishop was hurt in game one. Vasilevskiy did his part as he dueled with fellow rookie Matt Murray for a chance at the Stanley Cup Finals. He had the Penguins on the ropes down 3-2 and Stamkos returned in game seven from a long term injury but it wasn’t enough. Now, Vasilevskiy is the guy in Tampa Bay for the foreseeable future.
This recipe mixes really well for the Lightning and makes them a scary threat in the East. They are another Stamkos injury away from being relegated down the standings as they were last year. But, with a healthy roster, there is no reason we won’t see the Lightning be the biggest threat to dethrone the Penguins a top the Eastern Conference. Or, maybe even the entire league.