Lightning may face a tough road in postseason

by Gary Shelton on March 10, 2020

in general

Vasilevskiy has to get hot in th postseason./CHUCK MULLER

Tuesday, 4 a.m

Right about now, the identities are taking shape. You have your glistening highlight reel, and you have your guys who turn the middle of the ice into quicksand, and you have your tough guys who would rather strike a player than a puck.

But as you prepare for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, there is one burning question in mind.

Who is this year's Columbus team?

Who are the Blue Jackets this time around?

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Ah, you remember. Last season, the Blue Jackets pulled off an upset for the ages when it beat the Lightning, the Presidents Cup winner, a team that finished 30 points ahead of them in the standings. Another way to say that it is that it was the quickest, most embarrassing outset a Stanley Cup favorite has ever had. The Blue Jackets won in four games, possibly because it is mathematically impossible to do it in three.

But playoff hockey, as we all know, is a different sport than the one played in the regular season. The ice shrinks, and the physical teams have an edge because the officials swallow their whistlers. A torrid goalie can forgive a lot of sins. And the playoff draw is one of the most overlooked parts of the equation.

And so, if you are the Lightning, you are looking around for the toughest guy in the room.

Mind you, Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn't been as good this year as last.

Nikita Kucherov hasn't been as good this year as last.

Who knows if Steven Stamkos will even play?

Oh, I agree. This Lightning team has a degree of toughness that last season's team lacked with Pat Maroon and Blake Coleman. On the other hand, Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde still haven't grown any, which means teams are going to try to get physical with the Bolts again. Isn't that always the way?

This year's first round has been set for the Bolts for a while. They're six points behind Boston and 13 ahead of Toronto, which means they are looking at playing the Maple Leafs in the first round. Granted, Toronto hasn't had the year that some thought, but they're still a dangerous team because of Austin Matthews (46 goals). They've split their two games so far, and they've got two left (tonight's game in Toronto and March 25 in Tampa).

That would be a tough series for the Lightning, but say they get out of it. Their second round opponent (according to the seedings) would probably be Boston. The Bolts are 3-1 against Boston, but their games are a war, and yes, Boston has had the better regular season. David Pastrnak has 48 goals and Patrice Bergeron has 30.

If the Bolts win that, they advance to the conference finals. Washington is the most likely team to face them (although Philly and Pittsburgh are in the hunt). Washington drives Tampa Bay crazy. They won both meetings this season, and they have the marvelous Alex Ovechkin, who has 49 goals so far this season.

If that isn't tough enough, the Bolts would still have to win the Stanley Cup Finals. No one can be sure who will make it there, but St. Louis has paced the Western Conference all season. They've beaten Tampa Bay twice, too.

So how's that for a lineup? If seeds hold (and they rarely do), then the Bolts would face Toronto, Boston, Washington and St. Louis. That's tough sledding.

Remember the Cup winning schedule in 2004? They played the eighth-seeded Islanders, then the seventh-seeded Canadiens, then the third-seeded Flyers, then the sixth-seeded Flames. They were good, but they were fortunate that other teams knocked off Boston, Toronto, Ottawa, New Jersey, Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver and Colorado. All of those teams had seasons of 100 points or better.

Yes, the Lightning will enter the post-season with a chip on its collective shoulder. It will be focused, and it will be hungry.

And if they pull it off, we can finally forget about last year.

If not, the grumbling will get louder.

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