One week. That's what the Lightning has left in the regular season.
One week. Four games. Then it's playoff time.
Speaking of playoffs, who has even a clue how that's going to go?
Some nights you watch the Lightning and it feels like we're in for a two-month thrill ride that ends with captain Steven Stamkos finally lifting a Stanley Cup over his head. On such nights, the offense is buzzing, the defense is smothering and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy looks like an octopus — all arms and legs whipping around and stopping every puck in sight.
Other nights you watch the Lightning and it feels as if the team might get swept in the first round. The penalty-killing looks awful, the power play sputters, it can't win a faceoff, the defense looks like it's wearing shoes instead of skates and Vasilevskiy isn't saving everybody's bacon.
The problem is it's hard to know what to make of what we've seen over the past couple of months. Clearly, the Lightning team we've watched over the past two months isn't playing as well as the one we saw the first three months. It's not just one thing, not just one problem. It's just a different vibe, like something is wrong but you're not sure quite what that is.
That's what makes the postseason such a mystery for Tampa Bay.
But first things first. As we wrap up the regular season, the immediate question is how important is the next week?
I'm not sure it's important at all, with one caveat.
The only thing that truly matters over the next week is that no one gets hurt.
Not Stamkos. Not Nikita Kucherov. Not Brayden Point. Not Anton Stralman. Not anybody. And especially not Victor Hedman. And especially, especially not Vasilevskiy.
But as far as wins and losses, does what happens this week really have an impact on what happens in the playoffs?
At first glance, you might say yes.
Just for the sake of confidence, the Lightning wouldn't mind finishing strong. Along the way, if it can edge out the Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division, that would mean home-ice advantage against the Bruins should the teams meet in the playoffs.
Then again, maybe we're making too much of all this.
Here's how the next week sets up:
The Lightning is at home the next three games. The defending champion Predators come to town Sunday night for another measuring-stick game.
Then comes another showdown Tuesday with the Bruins, which is 3-0 against Tampa Bay this season. The Lightning then wraps up the home schedule against the Sabres on Friday and closes out the regular season on Saturday at Carolina.
If the Lightning can beat out the Bruins for first in the division, it could end up playing the Devils, Flyers, Penguins, Blue Jackets or Panthers. If it finishes second in the division, it will play the Maple Leafs. Who does the Lightning want? Flip a coin. All those teams are about the same, so you can't say it would be preferable to play one team or another.
Assuming the Lightning wins its first-round series, it is going to play the big, bad Bruins in the second round. (Assuming Boston wins its first-round series.) Now, would it be nice for Tampa Bay to have home-ice advantage and be able to host a Game 7 at home if it comes to that? Of course.
But if you follow hockey closely, you'll know that you're going to have to win a bunch of road games on your way to the Cup anyway. If Tampa Bay expects to beat the Bruins in a seven-game series, it's probably going to have to win at least one game in Boston no matter which team has home ice.
As far as momentum, however, don't read too much into how the Lightning finishes because history shows it probably doesn't matter.
Way back in 1993, the two-time defending champion Penguins might have had the best team in franchise history and one of the best teams ever — one loaded with the likes of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis, three of the top eight scorers in NHL history. They set an NHL record by winning 17 games in a row before tying the last game of the season.
Yet they were upset in the second round of the playoffs by an Islanders team that finished with 32 fewer points during the regular season.
Meantime, remember that Blackhawks team that beat the Lightning to win the Cup in 2015? They lost their final four games of the regular season. They went a pedestrian 13-10-1 in their final seven weeks of the regular season.
The year before that, the eventual Cup-winning Kings lost five of their final seven regular-season games.
The point? The final week or two of the season doesn't always carry over into the playoffs.
The Lightning would like to finish strong, but it's more important to finish healthy.
The next week will be interesting. But the weeks that follow are the ones that truly matter.