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Mark it down — the Lightning will hoist the '16 Stanley Cup

TAMPA

The Tampa Bay Lightning will win the Stanley Cup.

That's right. So don't schedule a Garth Brooks concert at Amalie Arena again next spring. The Lightning will need the rink to capture hockey's holy grail.

Go ahead and map the parade route. Buy the confetti.

The season won't go perfectly. It never does in the NHL. There will be injuries and slumps and doubts. But when the postseason rolls around, the Lightning will give its fans another two months of thrills and chills, just like last spring.

Except this time, the final won't end with a six-game Cup final loss to the Blackhawks. It will end with a series victory against Chicago or Anaheim or San Jose or whoever comes out of the West.

Doesn't matter. Whoever it is will merely be fodder for the Lightning.

Wait, you say. Isn't it unusual for a team to win the Stanley Cup a year after losing the Cup final? It is. Since the great expansion in 1967-68, only two teams have lost the Cup final and come back to win the next season. In the past 30 seasons, only the 2008-09 Penguins have pulled it off.

But like those Penguins, the Lightning's trip to the final last season was no fluke. The Lightning won the Eastern Conference because it was the best team in the Eastern Conference. And it is the best team in the conference this season.

Wait, you say. What about the Islanders? They are the chic pick this season. Sports Illustrated picked them to win the conference. Aren't they loaded with a bunch of young stars?

Yes, they are. But so is the Lightning. Nearly the entire Tampa Bay roster is made up of players no older than 31. Most of the team's best players — Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, the Triplets line, Ben Bishop — are in their mid 20s.

Wait, don't the Canadiens and Rangers have two of the best goalies in the NHL? They do. Montreal has defending league MVP Carey Price. New York has Henrik Lundqvist, who might be, pound-for-pound, the best goaltender in the world. But the Lightning has a pretty good goalie, too. Not only should Bishop's name be mentioned right alongside Price's and Lundqvist's, but let's not forget that Bishop outplayed both in last season's playoffs.

Bishop outdueled Price when the Lightning knocked out the Canadiens in six games in the second round. Then, in the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers, Bishop pitched two shutouts in critical Games 5 and 7 at Madison Square Garden.

The one knock against Bishop going into last season's playoffs was he never had appeared in the NHL post­season and no one could predict how he would react. Well, now we know. He has loads of playoff experience, and most of it is superb, including a pair of Game 7 shutouts.

Wait, didn't the Penguins pick up Phil Kessel to play with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to give Pittsburgh three of the most talented offensive players in hockey? Yes. But the Lightning's foursome of Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov gives the offense quality and quantity. No team has four players to match the Lightning's top four.

Wait, don't the Senators have a two-time winner of the Norris Trophy, given to the best defenseman in hockey? Yes, they do. Erik Karlsson is a terrific player, but Hedman is now in the Norris conversation after a breakout performance in last season's playoffs. Hedman established himself as one of the game's top defensemen and is surrounded by a deep blue line, including Jason Garrison, who led NHL defensemen in plus-minus last season, and Anton Stralman, who might be the most underrated defenseman in hockey.

Wait, didn't the Maple Leafs revamp their front office by hiring former Red Wings boss Mike Babcock as coach and former Devils architect Lou Lamoriello as general manager? Yes, but the Lightning executive staff remains the best in the East. General manager Steve Yzerman, last season's NHL executive of the year, has shrewdly put together a good team that should stay good for years. And Jon Cooper, entering just his third full coaching season in the NHL, has established himself as one of the sharpest hockey minds in the game.

Wait, don't the Capitals have super goal-scorer Alex Ovechkin? Yes, they do. But Stamkos is right there with Ovechkin, and besides, the Caps always choke come the postseason.

So who does that leave? Detroit? Columbus? Playoff contenders, yes. Cup contenders, no. The rest of the conference — Carolina, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Buffalo, Florida — remains a rebuilding work in progress and not a threat to Tampa Bay's superiority.

Lots could go wrong for the Lightning, starting with injuries. But Tampa Bay has shown the resiliency to overcome bad injuries in recent seasons, most notably Stamkos' broken leg in 2013-14. With all the depth at forward, the Lightning could probably survive an injury up front. Only long-term injuries to Hedman or Bishop could be seen as devastating. And with depth at defense and an up-and-comer in goal in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who should return next month from blood-clot issues, the Lightning might even be able to survive such injuries.

When it does, when this long grind is over, a prize will be waiting.

The Stanley Cup.

Mark it down — the Lightning will hoist the '16 Stanley Cup 10/07/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 9:27pm]
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