TAMPA — For much of this season, the Lightning gave us reason to believe they might end up on the outside of the playoffs looking in. That their loss of depth might finally have caught up with them, an untimely buildup of injuries too much to overcome in a tight Eastern Conference.
On some nights, they left us scratching our heads, wondering why they couldn’t build momentum game to game or period to period. At times, it seemed potentially the greatest single-player performance in franchise history could end without a postseason run.
But here we are, at the exhalation point of the season that is the All-Star break, and the Lightning are where they usually are this time of year, well-positioned in the playoff race and set up for a strong finish.
With 32 games remaining in the regular season, here’s what we know about the Lightning heading into the stretch run.
They have positioned themselves well
When the calendar reached January, the Lightning were clinging to the final playoff spot in the East, with four teams nipping at their heels. Just making the postseason seemed a real question. The schedule provided some respite, including six of their last nine games at home before the break.
The Lightning went 9-3-0 in January, winning eight of their final nine games while some of their playoff competition hit a wall. Piling up points can change your positioning quickly, and Tampa Bay sits in a much more comfortable spot now than it did a month ago.
The Lightning are third in the Atlantic Division with 59 points, one point ahead of the Maple Leafs and Red Wings, who currently occupy the East’s two wild-card spots. They are seven points in front of the Islanders, the next-closest team in the conference standings.
We are seeing best version of Kucherov
Nikita Kucherov is off to the best start of his career, leading the league in scoring and well on his way to setting career highs for goals and points. In addition, the right wing quietly has been one of his team’s top two-way players over the past month.
Earlier in the season, Kucherov had some mental lapses that resulted in costly turnovers and odd-man rushes. But he’s cut down on those mistakes and found a balance between not trying to do too much while still exhibiting the creativity that makes him one of the game’s best playmakers.
It may not be as noticeable, but on the defensive end Kucherov has been strong on the forecheck. He’s finishing hits and showing resilience battling for pucks. And when he gets the puck on his stick in his own end, he’s often able to break out cleanly and set the Lightning offense on its way.
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Vasilevskiy is truly back
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was slow out of the gate after first returning from surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back. That was to be expected, considering he hadn’t played in a game in nearly seven months before he took the ice Nov. 24 against the Hurricanes.
But Vasilevskiy has won eight of his past 10 starts, and advanced metrics show that one of his two losses (2-1 in Detroit on Jan. 21) was his best outing of that stretch. He’s making big saves when the Lightning need them, both early and late in games.
Vasilevskiy also is adapting to a new preparation routine, dumping power lifting for more core and flexibility strengthening and additional time on the ice seeing pucks. But there’s no doubt his play is trending upward, and his teammates are playing with more fluidity and confidence in front of him.
They are stocked with NHL-ready prospects
Injuries have forced the Lightning to tap into their prospect depth, and because of it they’ve found they have more players ready to contribute at the NHL level than they likely expected when camp broke.
Remarkably, the three prospects who have probably shown the most — forward Waltteri Merela and defensemen Emil Lilleberg and Max Crozier — weren’t even in the organization this time last year. Merela and Lilleberg were playing overseas, and Crozier was in college. Forward Mitchell Chaffee, a year removed from a serious knee injury, also has been a good fit as a physical bottom-six forward who can score.
They quickly earned the trust of their teammates and coaches by playing mistake-free hockey. Though their NHL days may be numbered with Mikhail Sergachev, Haydn Fleury and Tanner Jeannot set to return at some point after the break, there is no question the Lightning’s prospects have made the most of their opportunities.
BriseBois will do everything he can to upgrade
This is the time of year we wonder how general manager Julien BriseBois will pull another rabbit out of his hat and upgrade the Lightning at the trade deadline despite a consistently diminishing inventory of trade chips.
Three years ago, he landed defenseman David Savard for a Stanley Cup run. Two years ago, he unearthed forwards Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul. Last season, he added much-needed muscle with Tanner Jeannot.
The Lightning don’t have a first-round pick until 2026 and only have a third-round selection over the first four rounds of this summer’s draft, so there’s not much to entice potential trade partners. But the team has debuted many prospects this season who could be dangled as bait now that they’ve seen NHL ice time.
One thing is for sure. BriseBois will look to add, not subtract from his team. He squashed any notion captain Steven Stamkos, a pending free agent, might be traded — and that was before the Lightning made their push in the division standings. BrisBois likely will be seeking defense help, especially on the right side, much like when he acquired Savard as a rental in 2021.
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