By Adam Vingan
The Tampa Bay Lightning.
Yes, the same Tampa Bay Lightning that swept the Washington Capitals out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals just a few months ago. If you suffer from high blood pressure, I’d advise you stop reading now. But otherwise, don’t, because the Lightning will once again provide a challenge for the Caps.
Save The Date (season matchups): October 10 in Washington; January 13 in Washington; January 31 in Tampa Bay; February 18 in Tampa Bay; March 8 in Washington; April 2 in Tampa Bay.
Stocking Stuffers (notable additions): F Tom Pyatt (free agency via Montreal); F Ryan Shannon (free agency via Ottawa); D Matt Gilroy (free agency via New York Rangers); G Mathieu Garon (free agency via Columbus).
Gift Receipts: (notable losses): F Simon Gagne (signed with Los Angeles); F Sean Bergenheim (signed with Florida); D Randy Jones (signed with Winnipeg); G Mike Smith (signed with Phoenix).
Ghosts Of Christmas Past (last season): 46-25-11 – second in Southeast Division – fifth in Eastern Conference.
Though it is a horrible pun, the Lightning were indeed a streaky team last season. For example, a 7-2-1 October to start the season had Tampa Bay atop both the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference. Over the course of the season, the Lightning spent most of their time on top of the division and their first division title since 2003-04 (the year that they won the Stanley Cup) seemed within reach. But with that streakiness in mind, the Lightning’s 9-7-4 record in March and April – juxtaposed by the Caps’ 15-3-1 stretch over the final two months – ended division championship hopes. Regardless, the Lighting earned the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference (their first playoff appearance in four years) and faced the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. That’s when the Lightning began to strike gold.
Despite being down 3-1 in its series with Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay stormed back (no pun intended) by winning the last three games by a combined score of 13-4. To prevent ulcers and nausea, we’re just going to skip past the part where the Lightning swept the Caps out of the Eastern Conference to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2004 despite playing five games in a week. The Lightning’s eight-game playoff winning streak bled into their series with the Boston Bruins, winning Game 1 before Boston kept Tampa at bay (I’m sorry) and knocking them out of the playoffs in a 1-0 Game 7 victory.
Individually, the Lightning boasted one of the league’s best offenses. Two players – Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos – finished in the top five in overall scoring. Tampa Bay had 10 players score double-digit goals, a potent power play (20.5%, sixth in the NHL) and scored 2.94 G/G (seventh in NHL, third in East). The Lightning’s defense got drastically better, too; they finished with a 83.8% success rate on the penalty kill during the regular season (eighth) and did even better during the postseason with a 92.3% success rate, giving up just six power play goals in 78 shorthanded opportunities.
Perhaps the most important piece of Tampa Bay’s puzzle was the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson, who resurrected his career after a January 1 trade from the New York Islanders. In 34 regular season games with Tampa Bay, Roloson finished 18-12-4 with a 2.56 GAA and .912 SV% with four shutouts (two of which came against the Caps within his first week in Tampa Bay). In the playoffs, Roloson tied Jacques Plante for the longest postseason winning streak for a goalie over the age of 40 when he went 10-6 with a 2.51 GAA and .924 SV%.
Wish List (season outlook): Honestly, there is not much to disprove the idea that the Lightning will be just as good (if not better) than they were last season. Despite losing Gagne’s 17 goals and Bergenheim’s playoff heroics, the Lightning return the core of their team, most importantly Stamkos, who re-signed for five years, $37.5 million. Stamkos, St. Louis and captain Vincent Lecavalier all figure to be dangerous once again, while players like Ryan Malone, Steve Downie, Teddy Purcell and Nate Thompson will look to do the same.
Most of the players that general manager Steve Yzerman brought in were for depth. Garon will reunite with Roloson and provide solid goaltending when the latter, at 41 years old, needs to rest. Shannon should fill Bergenheim’s spot as the pesky checking winger.
Roloson will be the key for Tampa Bay this season. As has been highlighted, Roloson had arguably the best stretch of his long career after being traded. For the Lightning to prove that they can indeed strike twice, Roloson needs to be more like fine wine and get better with age as opposed to lukewarm Natural Light sitting on the counter.