That ended up being the theme for the Bolts last season. They took a historically good season and a historically good individual season from Nikita Kucherov and dumped in straight into the toilet like tainted Taco Bell in four games. In some ways, it makes them more unique than if they’d just won the Cup. But that will be of little solace to them and their fans. Which makes this season something of a revenge tour. Most likely, they’ll dial back in the regular season a touch, which should be still more than good enough to win this division. And no judgements can be made until the postseason starts. But the thing with the Lightning is they don’t have some record of being playoff chokers. They’ve been to the conference final twice, a Final once all in the last four seasons. Perhaps they should have beaten the Caps in that conference final, with a Game 7 at home, but it was hardly the magnitude of an upset that last year was. They may be running out of chances.
62-16-4 128 points (1st in Metro, lost in 1st round)
3.89 GF/G (1st) 2.80 GA/G (7th) +72 GD
51.5 CF% (9th) 52.6 xGF% (8th)
29.2 PP% (1st) 85.0 PK% (1st)
Goalies: A microcosm of the entire team, no opinions are going to be formed about Andrei Vasilevskiy in the regular season. We know he’s almost certainly going to put up Vezina-numbers then. He’s been over .920 in both of his seasons as starter, and .925 at evens. Unless something truly broke in the playoffs, the Lightning have no questions here.
But when April rolls around, so do all those questions. Vas-manian Devil here was simply awful in the first round, putting up an .856 over four games against Columbus. No, he didn’t have a lot of help, but when the Lightning needed a save, he didn’t provide one. This followed him somewhat falling apart in that Game 7 the previous season, so we know there are gremlins jumping around his skull in the spring. And that label dogs you until you prove it untrue. Vas is going to have to wait six months to make things right.
He’ll be backed up by Curtis McElhinney, who is about as solid in that role as you can ask. He had a brief hot streak with the Canes last year before ceding to Peter Mrazek, and was solid as a backup in Toronto the previous two seasons to the point where the unwashed rabble amongst Leafs fans (read: all of them) were pining for him last season. The Lightning won’t want to turn things over to him for too long a stretch if something happens to Vasilevskiy, but he certainly can get them out of 20-25 games.
Defense: What might be most amazing about the Lightning’s season last year is that this defense isn’t all that impressive. And it’s still not. Victor Hedman is one of the best around and certainly cures a lot of ills. But Anton Stralman started to age last year, and they replaced him this time around with a couple fliers in Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn. You could see where in heavily sheltered shift, and the Bolts can do that for him, Kirk ShattenKevin could be a find. Mikhail Sergachev had a rough go in the playoffs, but still has all the promise in the world and should get second-pairing time now.
Erik Cernak‘s play landed Slater Koekkoek here, so you can thank him for that. But Braydon Coburn is still here for reasons no one can explain. Ryan McDonagh is past it too, though Hedman covers up for a lot of that. You know Rutta and Schenn suck deep pond scum. When they were put under heavy attack last year by the Jackets, you saw what happened. They’ll need a renaissance from Shattenkirk and real steps forward from Sergachev and Cernak. If they don’t get those, they’ll have to go looking.
Forwards: Then again, it might not matter thanks to this group. They still need to cram in Brayden Point to their cap situation, as he remains unsigned. Until he is, they’ll just have to find a way to make do with Steven Stamkos, Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson (high atop our wanted list for the Hawks), Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph. How will they ever manage?
The Bolts lit up the scoreboard on the power play and at evens, and with Stamkos and Kucherov on opposite wings there’s no reason the PP won’t go pinball noises again. There’s just little answer for them, especially with Hedman up top. It’s hard to match this depth, whenever Point gets back into the fold. They could ice just the forwards and Vasilevskiy and probably still be a playoff team. Hell, they should try a 4F-1D lineup at all times just to see what happens.
Predictions: If you got odds on this team to win the Cup, you should take them. I don’t think last season is anything other than a strange anomaly, and the only thing that could derail them again before the conference final is if Vasilevskiy truly does see ghosts in the postseason. Yeah, the defense is not special, but it’s got three puck-movers that it needs and all it really has to do is get the puck up to the forwards and say, “Go do shit.” And this forward group is still otherworldly. Is Kucherov going to go for 128 points again? No, probably not. But he doesn’t have to. This team, barring injury or goalies going inside-out, can sleepwalk to 110 points and the Atlantic title again. Any question about them is in the playoffs, and again, this isn’t a team that has a track record of throwing up on itself when it counts. That feels like a one-off. All systems go here.
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