Bolts have a lot of work to do before contending

by Gary Shelton on February 25, 2023

in general

Saturday, 4 a.m.

The engine doesn't always run smoothly. There are squeaks coming from underneath. At times, there are rattles and hiccups.

Still, the Tampa Bay Lightning hovers.

They sometimes get lost in coverage. There are moments they handle the puck like the Skating Jameis Winstons. They are horrible away from home.

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But they are a proud bunch, these Lightning. They are all but assured of their 10th playoff trip in the last 10 seasons. They have name brands on the ice.

Still, the playoffs that loom ahead might be their toughest to negotiate.

Who knows? If they win, Jon Cooper might finally get that joke of an NHL Coach of the Year award. Poor guy. He keeps settling for these trips to the Stanley Cup instead.

Oh, there are times they look like they might surprise some people yet. After all, they are in third place in the Atlantic Division, which is where they usually are in late February. They were third this time last year, and they won the conference. They were third the year before, and they won the Cup. The year before that, they were second and won the Cup.

So how nervous should you feel that the Bolts are in third place this time around, too? They still have Andrei Vasilevskiy. They still have Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. They have a lot of guys who know how to win.

Still, they seem about two clicks away from true contention. There is their nasty habit of not getting back on defense, which tends to leave Vasilevskiy naked in front of the net. They are just 14-13-1 on the road, which is terrible. They have given up five goals or more in 10 games this season.

Then, there are the opponents. The Toronto Maple Leafs have added to their roster. The Boston Bruins are having a terrific season. Those would be the Lightning's first two playoff opponents. That only gets a team halfway there.

Granted, the Bolts still have some danger to them. They have their big three on offense, plus Brandon Hagel and Nick Perry. Vasilevskiy can steal a game by himself.

On the other hand, it's a dangerous league with Carolina and New Jersey and Dallas and Las Vegas.

For the Bolts to win, they have a lot of cleaning up to do. They need to slow the odd-man rushes. They need to get more dirty goals. They need to play the way their pedigree suggests.

No one is saying the Bolts should surrender. But they have a lot of work to do over the season's last 25 games.

if they get it done, who knows? Maybe Cooper wins that Coach of the Year award, after all.

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