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Tampa Bay Lightning schedule loaded with contenders, pretenders

Martin Fennelly looks into his crystal ball and sees hunters and heartbreakers on the Bolts’ schedule.

TAMPA — Quick summary of last NHL season: St. Louis Blues lifting the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, Tampa Bay Lightning on the golf course.

Well, here come the Lightning again.

Here comes everyone else, too.

Maybe the Lightning have been appropriately motivated/haunted into doing something about their opening-round fold. But when you look through the Lightning looking glass, their prism, this season has candidates to give them nightmares all over again. The Lightning gave way to the Blue Jackets in the last playoffs. No one will hand anything to them this time, either. Their window to win the Stanley Cup remains open, but they need to be on the lookout. Despite that epic fold last April, the Lightning will be the hunted again. Who will be the hunters, the possible heartbreakers?

The Maple Leafs — yes, the Maple Leafs — appear ready to step up and get in Tampa Bay’s way. Toronto has a dynamite offense, led by the trio of John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. They would have made a run already if the first round of the playoffs and the Bruins had never been invented.

But the Bruins do indeed exist, and as annoying as they are, as old as some of them are getting, they should matter. Brad Marchand should be a pest again. Boston will be in the way again. The Lightning blew past them in the playoffs two seasons ago, but Boston stormed to the Cup final last season before skating into the buzz-saw Blues.

The Capitals are only one season removed from winning the Cup, beating the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final at Amalie Arena along the way. The Caps will need better defense to return to the top, but at least Alex Ovechkin and the gang know the way, which is more than you can say about the Lightning.

The Hurricanes’ conference final appearance last season might be just the beginning. Carolina is fast and talented, led by budding superstar Sebastian Aho. The Hurricanes are in position to challenge in the Metropolitan Division and to mess with Lightning.

The Blues now know how it’s done, so it’s hard to count them out in a back-to-back Cup quest.

The Predators’ window is closing more quickly than the Lightning’s. The departure of P.K. Subban doesn’t help. But Matt Duchene, who helped stick a fork in the Lightning during the sweep, joins the mustard cats. Nashville has to finally get over the top or else. Sound familiar, Lightning fans?

The Sharks have two of the three best defensemen in hockey (Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson). That’s a good start, but deep down, they are the teal-colored Lightning.

Like the Lightning, the Flames were great in the regular season in 2018-19, only to go belly-up in the playoffs.

The Avalanche will head to the Stanley Cup final within three years. This just isn’t that year.

The Penguins and Sidney Crosby are ready to fall. The Panthers, with Sergei Bobrovsky in net and Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville behind the bench, might be on the rise, but not that much. Forget the Red Wings for now, even with former Lightning GM Steve Yzerman running the show. Forget the Oilers, too, despite having Connor McDavid. Is there anyone even left with the Blue Jackets besides John Tortorella?

But worry about the Golden Knights. They had an epic Game 7 playoff collapse against San Jose in the first round last year but might have learned from it. It’s all about the learning. Vegas might be the team the Lightning need to get around.

You know, if the Lightning get that far.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com. Follow @mjfennelly.

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