For the Tampa Bay Lightning, Thursday’s home date with the Toronto Maple Leafs was pretty close to a must win. Getting two points would have created separation in a tight race for the final wild-card spot. It also might have eliminated the chasing aspect of reaching the ultimate goal.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, none of those things came to pass with the Maple Leafs handing them a 5-0 shellacking. One that could end up being the playoff-deciding game changer. This kind of performance raises an interesting question going forward.
Are the Tampa Bay Lightning worthy of making the playoffs? Do they have what it takes to compete with the big boys?
Looking solely at Thursday nights mess, the easy answer would be no. If you can’t put up a fight against a young but talented Toronto team, how would you beat elite NHL teams? The Pittsburgh’s, Chicago’s, Washington’s, San Jose’s are all perennial Stanley Cup contenders. Those guys don’t miss the playoffs and usually go far once they get there.
The Lightning were getting close to competing with those teams in recent years. They pushed Chicago to six games in the 2015 Stanley Cup final. Last year, they gave Pittsburgh a fight before narrowly losing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. This year has been a different story though. A team with heightened expectations found themselves in the East cellar on February 2nd. That sparked a turnaround that no one saw coming.
Out of a playoff spot and with a mountain to climb, the Lightning clawed their way up the standings. Four points on a recent back-to-back road trip got them into a tie for the eighth and final wild card spot. But the work doesn’t stop there, a message that failed to reach Tampa Bay before their most recent clash.
Delving deeper, however, the Lightning have had a lot go against them this season. The loss of two leaders, Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, due to injury. The trade deadline, forcing them to say goodbye to three key pieces of this teams success in past years. Then more injuries, with three centers (Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette) going down one week ago.
Glancing at the big picture, it’s a miracle the Lightning are knocking on the door of a playoff spot with so many distractions. Oh, and a lineup filled with minor leaguers. That’s a testament to the experience this team has in elimination style games. It’s also one reason I feel they might in fact be playoff worthy.
Can the Tampa Bay Lightning make the postseason? While unknown at this time, the mere fact they are close is a miracle considering where they were over a month ago.