The 2015-2016 National Hockey League regular season is finished, and now it is down to 16 teams to see who will claim Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Tampa Bay Lightning are one of those 16, and will seek to improve upon last season’s excellent playoff run by finishing the job and winning the championship. They are set to face off against the Detroit Red Wings, a rematch of last year’s playoff quarterfinals which were won by the Lightning in seven games.
It will be a harder road this year, as injuries to major stars will be a burden on a roster that has been inconsistent this season. The Lightning finished with 97 points, good enough for second place in the Atlantic Division. However, due to the injuries to forward Steven Stamkos and defenseman Anton Stralman, it will not be extra challenging for the team.
Stamkos, the Lightning’s captain and offensive leader, had surgery on Apr. 4 to remove a blood clot from his shoulder. This will keep him out for anywhere between one to three months, which will force the Lightning to rely on players like Jonathan Drouin, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat to excel during his absence. If this were the regular season, it would be easier for the team to try to just stay afloat, maintaining their position as best they could until Stamkos returns, but the playoffs are a different beast entirely. Best of seven series do not agree with long term injuries, and the fact that the Lightning’s best offensive player will, at best, miss most of the playoffs means that a win now mentality is needed from the start.
The Stamkos injury will be especially hard on the Lightning considering how average they were on offense this year. Scoring 2.7 goals per game placed the team 12th in the league, but an anemic 15.8 percent on the power play was towards the bottom of the NHL, 28th of the 30 teams. Without Stamkos, this offense will likely struggle further.
Despite how important Stamkos is to the offense, the bigger injury is likely to be to Stralman. He will miss the opening round after breaking his leg on Mar. 25, leaving a hole in the defense that will be hard to fill. The Lightning defense was exceptional this season, posting 2.4 goals against average, 5th in the league, and holding the 7th best penalty kill percentage, at 84 percent. Stralman’s absence will hurt that defense in the playoffs though.
Where the Lightning don’t have to worry is in the net. Goalie Ben Bishop maintained his excellent play throughout the season, finishing with the league’s best 2.06 goals against average, the second best save percentage, at .926, and tied for fourth in the league with 35 wins. He likely will be a finalist for the Vezina trophy, awarded to the best goalie in the league. Bishop will keep the Lightning in every game they play, as long as the injury bug that the Lightning are dealing with right now doesn’t bite him.
Initially, the Lightning will have to deal with a hungry Detroit Red Wings team, who are looking to rally behind retiring star Pavel Datsyuk and avenge last playoff’s defeat. The Lightning are deep enough that they should be able to get past Detroit, but then they will draw either the Atlantic Division champion Florida Panthers or the wild card New York Islanders. Neither team would be much of a problem with the Lightning at full health, but since they won’t be, it will be a tough matchup either way.
The first game of the playoffs will have been played on Apr. 13, and this game will go a long way in seeing if the Lightning’s injuries will be too much to overcome. It is unlikely that they will be defeated by Detroit, but the Lightning will probably need all seven games to advance. The Lightning defeat either Florida or New York in the next round, but it does not look like they will go all the way this season. Fans can expect a gritty performance by a wounded team, but the team should survive until the Conference Finals.