ESPN: Lightning is near-unanimous pick to advance to Stanley Cup final

Tampa Bay was favored to win the Stanley Cup before the season began. And it has done nothing to dispel that notion.
Could the Lightning be eyeing a return to the Stanley Cup final? Much of ESPN's hockey coverage team seems to think so. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Could the Lightning be eyeing a return to the Stanley Cup final? Much of ESPN's hockey coverage team seems to think so. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published January 17

The Lightning was favored to win the Stanley Cup before the 2018-19 season began.

And as we approach the all-star break, the team has done nothing to dispel that notion, racing to the top of the league's overall standings with an eye-popping 74 points — nine more than any other team and 15 more than its closest pursuer in the Eastern Conference.

Taking the opportunity to refresh its picks for which teams will advance to the Cup final, ESPN's team of hockey writers is nearly unanimous in choosing the Lightning to advance out of the East.

Senior writer Greg Wyshynski believes the Lightning will beat the Sharks in the final.

"Tampa is demonstrably the best team in the NHL, with a plus-58 goal differential and incomparable depth,"he writes. "They were built to win this season, and so far their foundation is sturdy."

National NHL reporter Emily Kaplan is sticking with her preseason pick of the Jets over the Lightning. But just because she isn't sold on the Lightning this season doesn't mean she doesn't see a Cup in their future.

"I fear Tampa Bay is entering the old Washington Capitals territory," she writes. "An uber-talented team with incredible regular-season dominance that won't win the Cup … until we least expect them to do so."

Hockey analytics writer Dimitri Filipovic picks the Lightning and Predators to advance. No ESPN writer is more effusive in their praise of Tampa Bay.

“The Lightning are clearly the class of the NHL at the moment. They’ll surely slow down at some point if only out of sheer pity for the rest of the league, but for now they’re on pace to finish the season with a truly absurd 130 points and plus-100 goal differential. They have four offensive lines that can come at you in waves and beat you, an absolutely lethal power play and possibly the most prolific young goalie in the game in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Oh, and Nikita Kucherov is currently in the midst of the type of season that we’ve only ever really seen in video games and bygone eras, having ripped off 63 points in his past 35 games since the start of November. Because they have no real identifiable weakness, they have to be the pick right now, past playoff demons notwithstanding.”

Only ESPN the Magazine researcher Sachin Chandan is pessimistic about the Lightning's chances, going with the Caps and Preds instead.

"As dominant as Tampa Bay has been, their biggest obstacle could be getting a dangerous matchup against an experienced Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins team in the first round, followed by a brutal matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round," he writes. "To me, this opens up a chance for the Capitals to get to another Final, and I see Nashville coming out of the West."