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The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin on Wednesday and CHARGED.fm wants to prepare you for the thrills of playoff hockey. To get you ready, we contacted bloggers for the 16 playoff teams and asked them five questions to give us more insight about the teams they cover. Here is John Fontana of Raw Charge talking about the Tampa Bay Lightning and their playoff chances.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had one of the best regular seasons in franchise history. The Lightning finished in second place in the Atlantic Division with a 46-27-9 record, which is third-best in team history. Offseason acquisition, goaltender Ben Bishop, turned in a career year and is a potential a Vezina Trophy Candidate. Defenseman Victor Hedman brought his game to a new level and is considered one of the most improved players in the NHL.
However, this success did not come without some adversity. They were without their best player, Steven Stamkos for about three months. And when Stamkos finally returned to the line-up, they dealt away their captain, Martin St. Louis, due to a deteriorating relationship between him and general manager Steve Yzerman. Now, the Lightning could be without their starting goaltender Bishop for an undisclosed amount of time. Without Bishop, a deep playoff run could prove to be quite difficult for the Lightning. To address these concerns and more before it gets started at Tampa Bay Times Forum, I talked to John Fontana of Raw Charge and here is what he had to say:
1) What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning club?
Tenacious, resilient; they’ve overcome a lot of sideshow drama and kept on competing. The rookie class of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas, Mark Barberio and J.T. Brown have played a lot of hockey together (along with second-year player Richard Panik), most of it under head coach Jon Cooper in the AHL and now the NHL. Nikita Kucherov is also part of that rookie class but he’s new to pro hockey this season.
While people will latch on to these kids having lack of playoff experience, the bulk of them won a Calder Cup in the AHL together (under Cooper) in 2012.
I think some major weaknesses are the middling efforts on special teams (penalty kill and power play) and the bad coaching flaw that Jon Cooper demonstrated down the stretch – putting all his eggs in one basket in goal with Ben Bishop. I’ll elaborate on that in question 2.
2) Goaltender Ben Bishop suffered an upper body injury last week against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Do you have any concerns that he may not able to be ready for the playoffs? And if he isn’t, do you have confidence in Anders Lindback in handling the job?
Ben Bishop’s injury, per his agent, is to his elbow. Coach Cooper mused last week that Bishop won’t be ready for the start of the playoffs, but may return during the first round. This leaves me wary. Jon Cooper has overused Bishop while Bishop was already playing hurt (wrist sprain, sustained against the Edmonton Oilers in early January that was not given time to heal.) It’s because of this overuse of Bishop that makes Anders Lindback a question mark in net for the Bolts. His numbers have been lackluster this season (.891 save percentage, a 2.90 GAA in only 23 appearances this season) in limited opportunities, which casts a lot of doubt on Lindy’s ability to handle the job. At the same time, he’s been handed a very raw deal with goalie coach Frantz Jean during the season, and that conflict has been part of why things have fallen apart.
Now that all the eggs are out of one basket (Bishop), the club itself needs to do a better job investing in the preparation of Lindback. It’s also on the player himself to stand up while the spotlight is on him.
One other note, there’s a chance that pro-rookie Kristers Gudlevskis will see playing time in the playoffs. If that name sounds familiar, he’s the Latvian goalie who stymied Team Canada at the 2014 winter Olympics. He’s made only on NHL start (the home finale on April 11th) but the franchise is impressed with him.
3) Ryan Callahan seems to be fitting in well with the Lightning, recording 12 points in 19 games since coming over from the Rangers during the trade deadline. Outside of stats, what other things has he brought to this team?
Responsible two-way play; great forechecker; a major upgrade on the penalty kill. These aren’t sexy aspects to hockey, I mean the media play up goals and assists and such, but they’re integral aspects. Having a top line player who knows it’s vital to play strong at both ends, that is an asset.
4) The Lightning are set to take on the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs. How do you see this match-up playing out?
We went through this in 2004 (the Lightning played Les Habs in the Eastern Conference semifinals)… Not this team that’s going to lace them up, but the franchise in general. See, what I expect is physical play but whatever goes on – the media will amplify it five-fold because it’s the Canadiens and the Montreal media machine supports them to no end.
Getting away from the sideshow and focusing on the series itself, I expect Carey Price to be a thorn in the Lightning’s side as he has been all season. He’s played excellent, even though the Bolts have won the season series with Montreal in the regular season. All of that, what was done in the regular season, is moot now. Price is a great goalie and he’s certain to be on his game.
Tampa Bay has some injury issues besides Bishop that need to be dealt with in haste – Victor Hedman and Sami Salo, two of Tampa’s top D-men, are hurting. Valtteri Filppula and rookie/Calder Award candidate Ondrej Palat are on the mend.
I see a tough battle for a young team in the Lightning, but it’s not one that can’t be won.
5) What is your overall prediction for the Lightning this postseason?
They’ll play games. They’ll win a few, they’ll lose a few. They’ll contend and may or may not go far. That’s a non-answer but from a fan perspective, I don’t want to get my hopes up, and as a writer I want to remain objective too. This is a learning experience for a young team and a rookie NHL head coach just as much as it is an opportunity to vie for Lord Stanley’s Cup. The Lightning can contend versus just about every team in these playoffs (in both conferences) except Boston and Pittsburgh, who have handcuffed and frustrated the Lightning all season. That’s not saying they’ll go far, nor is it saying one-and-done; they have the ability to contend and the opportunity to do so. Will they? We’re about to find out.
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