Bolts have NHL right where it wants it

by Gary Shelton on April 3, 2018 · 2 comments

in general

Kucherov .hasn't scored like he did early in the season./CARMEN MANDATO

Kucherov hasn't scored like he did early in the season./CARMEN MANDATO

Tuesday 3 a.m.

You have to hand it to those Tampa Bay Lightning. They sure can play rope-a-dope.

Why, to the untrained eye, the Lightning certainly looks like it's it trouble, doesn't it? Just like that, they've gone from being the team to beat to the team that everybody beats. They look like a cut fighter hanging on the ropes, like a blind man stumbling through a room where the furniture has been rearranged. They are gasping for air.

It's all a con, right?


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Vasilevskiy has won only two of his last seven starts./CARMEN MANDATO

Vasilevskiy has won only two of his last seven starts./CARMEN MANDATO

It isn't easy going from lead dog to underdog. It's hard to fool an entire league to think you have suddenly become ordinary. Isn't it?

For most of the season, the Lightning threatened to be a runaway train in the NHL. Lately, however, there results aren't god, and the play is worse, and it's anyone's guess as to just how quick the Bolts' foray into the playoffs will be over.

But in their last five games, the Bolts have lost four. There are a lot of hotter teams around the NHL, frankly.

Take goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has lost three straight. In all, Vasilevskiy is 2-5 in his last seven games, and he's given up 27 goals. He still leads the league in wins with 42, but two other goalies have 41.

He hasn't had a lot of support, either. The defense has continued to give up odd-man rushes. Neither Steven Stamkos nor Yanni Gourde have scored a goal in 10 games. Nikita Kucherov has one in five games. Brayden Point has two in five games. Frankly the stretch drive is a lousy place to lose sight of the goal, but it's not as bad as the post-season.

The Bolts have fallen to second in the Atlantic Division. They're third in the overall points race.

Even worse, they face a tough road through the playoffs.

Remember 2003-04, the year the Bolts won it all.? The Bruins and Ottawa lost before they could get to Tampa Bay. In the West, Detroit, San Jose, Vancouver and Colorado -- all with 100 points -- all lost.

That Lightning team faded at the end, too. It went 5-6 down these stretch. But the playoffs can provide their own energy. Perhaps that will happen this time, too.

In other words, the bracket is important.

Consider: If the playoffs started today, the Bolts would play Toronto in the first-round. That's pesky enough. The Bolts won three of the four games, although one was in a shootout.

The tough task would come in round two, when the Bolts would play against Boston or New Jersey. Tampa Bay is 0-3 against Boston and 0-2-1 against Buffalo. That's not promising.

Remember, in the playoffs, it's the matchups that count. Remember 2004, when the Bolts won it all? Someone else beat Boston and Ottawa, which would have been tough matchups for them. In the West, someone beat Detroit, San Jose and Colorado.

Could that happen this time? Maybe.

In the best of times, regular-season success doesn't guarantee playoff success in the NHL. Eight of the last nine winners of the President's Trophy (best overall record) have not won the Stanley Cup.

After facing Boston or New Jersey, the Bolts would play against Washington, Pittsburgh, Philly or Columbus in the conference finals. Then the finals.

It's a tough task.

Even if the Lightning can turn it back on.

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