TAMPA — The Lightning knew going into this season that their path to the playoffs would be more difficult. Less than a third of the way into the season, they already find themselves in a situation where every point matters.
Entering Wednesday’s games, the Lightning (15-9-1, 31 points) were eighth and clinging to the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference, just two points ahead the Rangers. Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Red Wings (13-7-5, 31 points) allowed Detroit to jump ahead of Tampa Bay in the standings based on the first tiebreaker, which is regulation wins.
“They were two points back of us before this one, so it was a big one,” Lightning center Brayden Point of the impact of a loss to a division opponent. “But there’s a lot of hockey left to be played.”
Consider that the Lightning have five overtime wins this season, and those extra points are the difference between being in a playoff spot right now and being on the outside looking in. Before Wednesday’s games, four teams were within five points of the Lightning for the conference’s final playoff spot.
By the end of December last season, the Lightning had the most points in the Atlantic Division and were tied for most in the conference. At that point, they essentially were competing for postseason seeding, as they were already 14 points ahead of the Red Wings for the final playoff spot.
This season, the Lightning are 5-3-0 against division opponents. They have big overtime wins over Toronto and Florida. Tuesday’s loss to Detroit was Tampa Bay’s first to a division opponent other than Atlantic-leading Boston, which has beaten the Lightning twice.
But it took everything they had to get some of their other division wins: a one-goal win over Ottawa, and two closely contested victories over Buffalo, including one in overtime. And those are the teams sitting in the last two spots in the division, showing that there’s competition from top to bottom in the Atlantic.
Here’s a closer look at why the Lightning’s path through the division won’t be quite as easy this season.
Younger teams will get better with experience
The Lightning still have a bull’s-eye on them, so they know to expect every opponent’s best game. In the past, some of those teams didn’t have the horses to compete with a highly skilled team like the Lightning. Now, some of them do. A young Buffalo squad might still be a year away, but it has figured things out on offense, ranking second in the league in scoring (3.8 goals a game). Both of the Lightning’s meetings with the Sabres were tight. The advantage the Lightning have now is that their core is battle-tested, so they know how to win close games late. They’re 7-2-1 in one-goal games and 5-1 in overtime. Some of these other teams — like Buffalo and Ottawa — are still learning that. When they do, it could even the ice. Marty St. Louis’ Montreal team, who Tampa Bay faces for the first time on Dec. 17, already seems to be learning, going 8-0-2 in one-goal games.
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Lightning have company in the middle of the pack
The Lightning are clinging to the eighth playoff spot, but the reigning Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers are currently three points behind them. No question, Florida is a playoff-caliber team that has started slowly. It’s taken time for the Panthers to jell after they made massive changes in the offseason, acquiring forward Matthew Tkachuk and sending franchise fixtures Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar to Calgary in a blockbuster trade. In time, they should become more synchronized, and we know from last season that they have an ability to pile up points quickly. The Lightning have three more regular-season meetings with their cross-state rivals.
Goaltending upgrades will matter
Most teams were looking to upgrade the goaltender position, and there was an incredible amount of movement among netminders in the offseason. Detroit acquired Ville Husso in a trade with St. Louis, and he’s emerged as one of the top goaltenders in the division. He put on a clinic Tuesday, stopping 44 of 46 shots and holding Tampa Bay without a 5-on-5 goal (both came with an extra attacker). The Lightning know how much having confidence in your goaltender can help, and that’s what’s happening in Detroit. A young, talented roster is playing the right way, dedicated to discipline and structure under former Lightning assistant and first-year head coach Derek Lalonde.
Boston’s dominance creates competition below
With all due respect to the upstart Devils, the Bruins have been the best team so far this season. They lead the league in scoring (3.96 goals a game), fewest goals allowed (2.17 goals a game) and scoring differential (plus-43). With 41 points, they entered Wednesday already 10 up on the second wild-card spot in the conference. The Maple Leafs were just three points back with 38. After that, the Lightning were one of four teams within three points of each other — Detroit (31), Tampa Bay (31), Florida (28) and Montreal (28). This isn’t last season, when the Lightning, Panthers and Leafs ran away with the division’s three playoff spots by Jan. 1. Expect more teams to scrap for everything.
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