The Tampa Bay Lightning have been a force to be reckoned with to say the least for the past three seasons. Having said that, it’s hard not to realize how much of a roller-coaster ride it’s been for the Bolts this year. From injuries to dealing with the salary cap, general manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper have had their work cut out for them this season. However, the Lightning have been overcoming adversity and have players willing to step up. For that very same reason the Lightning are still in the playoff race and with four games remaining. They sit just four points back of the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins, who have four and three games left respectively. The Toronto Maple Leafs sit five points ahead and also have four games left on their schedule.
Five Reasons the Tampa Bay Lightning Remain Alive in Playoff Race
1. Nikita Nucherov
Tampa has been without their captain and star centre Steven Stamkos since he went down with a torn meniscus against the Detroit Red Wings back on November 15th. Since then a few players have been stepping up at big times. One of those biggest has been Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov had a remarkable month of March, to say the least. He got hot at just the right time with showing no signs of slowing down. In the month of March, he tallied 12 goals and 10 assists to lead the NHL with 22 points in 14 games. He was named NHL player of the month for his efforts.
2. Victor Hedman
If you’re wondering who has been carrying the defense for the Bolts this season, look no further than Victor Hedman. Despite the rough season the Lightning have had this year, Hedman has still managed to turn heads in his direction. He has played in 74 games this year and in that time, he has 15 goals and a ridiculous 52 assists for a total 67 points. That’s remarkable coming from a defenseman who has been carrying the load for an injury plagued team. Hedman has also hit the record books. On Thursday against Detroit, he picked up his 66th assist of the season to break the Tampa Bay Lightning record for most points in a season by a defenseman, surpassing Roman Hamrlik’s mark set back in the 1995-96.
3. Andrei Vasilevskiy
The goaltending situation that has been scrutinized since the beginning of the regular season. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Ben Bishop would be traded and the reigns be handed down to 22-year old Andrei Vasilevskiy. The young goaltender has certainly been asked a lot of in the past two years. Back in the Lightning’s cup final run in 2014 he became the first goalie in 24 years to win a Stanley Cup Final game in relief of a starter (Ben Bishop). With that win he also became the first goaltender to earn their first playoff win in a final since Lester Patrick in 1928.
Whenever you take a risk by trading a veteran to give a young goaltender his chance it’s never an easy transition. However, Vasilevskiy has made that transition easier for his club as it closes in on the season’s end. With the playoffs, still very much in sight, Vasilevskiy has been stellar for his squad. Since Bishop’s departure back on February 26th he holds a 9-3-2 record with a .915 save percentage. Prior to the trade he held an 11-13-3 record.
4. Jon Cooper
Looking at the coaching, Jon Cooper has produced this season. One can not help but appreciate what he has done this year. Since this season began, he has had to question who would even be in his line-up almost every night, but somehow Cooper has managed to push his guys enough to stay in the hunt. Despite being 49, the middle-aged coach can relate to the younger players on the team. He also works will with the veterans on the team. He has been the coach in Tampa since Guy Boucher (now Ottawa Senators head coach) was let go back in 2013. Since then the team has made it to the Stanley Cup finals once and Eastern Conference Championship twice. He puts a lot of faith in players who are producing and right now that’s surprisingly the younger guys on the team and that leads us to my next point.
5. The Young Guns
There is no doubt that Tampa Bay has been riddled with injuries this season. There is also no doubt that the young guns have been an important presence. Certain names that come to mind in this discussion are Brayden Point, Gabriel Dumont, Adam Erne, Yanni Gourde and even Joel Vermin who was just sent back down to minors on Sunday; with the return of Tyler Johnson.
Point has played in 64 games this year and recorded 14 goals and 20 assists. He scored the game winning goal against the New York Rangers on March 13th.
Dumont has been dressed in 32 games this season. He hopes to make it even more if they can make it to the post-season. In that time the 25-year old has just two goals and two assists. However, he has been a physical presence, down low in the offensive zone.
Adam Erne is also another big threat as a part of the young talent this team has to offer. Erne has played 22 games this season and only netted three goals but they’ve been timely ones. He scored his first NHL goal back on March 3rd against Pittsburgh to open the scoring in that game where they eventually lost 5-2. However, he was also able to bury the puck twice in Sunday’s key 5-3 win over the Dallas Stars.
Although Yanni Gourde was unable to score on Sunday the youngster has not failed to impress since being called up from the Syracuse Crunch. He came into Sunday night’s match-up on a three-game scoring streak. In just 16 games he has scored four goals and added two assists. One of those goals came against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 27 to cap off a three-goal comeback. Tampa would win in overtime.
Then there is Joel Vermin who is no longer on the Lightning roster. However, you cannot deny that he pulled his weight in his time with the big club. He played in 17 games and even though he didn’t record a goal he still recorded three assists.
There is no doubt this Tampa Bay Lightning team has a lot to offer. Even when they are bogged down by injuries and with the playoffs only four games away they find themselves in the race. You can expect them to bring it every game as the post-season nears. Boston, Toronto and Ottawa can only hope to fight off the storm that is the Tampa Bay Lightning.