Thursday ended a rather stressful week for the Tampa Bay Lightning as they closed out the first round of the NHL Playoffs with their 1-0 victory against the Red Wings. The Lightning at times had bouts of offensive ineptness and seemingly a lack of communication, but were able to weather the storm on the shoulders of Big Ben Bishop. This all came after a slew of injuries plagued the club near the end of the season. Fans and press alike questioned the Bolts ability to produce wins. Questions still remain for the Bolts as the will likely pursue the rest of their playoff run without star center Steven Stamkos. The Bolts now look to take some days off to recuperate and hopefully attempt to get Anton Stralman and J.T. Brown back into the mix of things. Their absences have been felt, but the club has managed without them in the lineup.
Looking forward, the Bolts will either play the Panthers or Islanders in round two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That series has seen its fair share of controversy and publicity after the "Potvin Beer" incident. Currently the series resides in a 3-2 lead for the Islanders after their double overtime win on Friday night. There was stellar goaltending from both teams in that contest, with a combined 90 shots on goal generated Tonight's game 6 gets played in Brooklyn at Barclays Center at 7 PM (it'll be broadcast on Fox Sports Sun and NBC Sports Net).
Here's a question: Which team seems like the easier opponent for the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Semifinals? This is the second season and anything can happen but if you reflect on the regular season results, you can find indications of what either possibility for round two might look like. The Bolts had losing records against both teams this season going 1-3-1 against the Cats and 1-2 against the Islanders.
Arguably the Bolts had off days during many of the contests against the Panthers as the Lightning had a -6 goal-differential during the regular season series. Some of these games seemed as if they would end in a Bolts victory but the Panthers were able to come out on top. It was that effort consistently that helped them win the Atlantic Division overall, finishing the season 47-26-9. Led by the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr (27 goals, 39 assists), the Panthers have been able produce a potent offensive attack that was ranked 8th in goals-for in the overall league this season. For comparison, the Isles and Bolts were ranked 11th and 13th respectively.
Tampa Bay has never played against the Panthers in the playoffs before. A round two series may be the catalyst the series needs to propel it into something more aggressive than what the two clubs are known for. The Bolts/Panthers rivalry has often been called into question. What should be ample opportunity for in-state teams to put on energetic, heated contests between them, hasn't resulted in anything like the full-fledged anarchy that Lightning fans have seen in recent years against Boston, Montreal, or Detroit.
As for the New York Islanders, there may be less stories to touch on compared to the narratives that the Panthers bring in a potential battle with the Bolts. The Islanders are led by an elite captain in John Tavares (33 goals and 37 assists in the regular season) and watching their top line go head to head with Ben Bishop should create much anxiety for Bolts fans. Tavares currently leads New York with 7 points in the series against the Cats. The Islanders also had the 4th best penalty kill in the league during the regular season with a 84.5% kill rate. A fact worth pointing out is that,at the moment, in the 2016 playoffs, Tampa Bay leads the field with a 86.0% penalty kill while the Isles are ranked 7th (83.3). This feat, facing a formidable penalty kill, is a wary subject for a Bolts team who has struggled to produce goals this year with the man advantage.
If the series does find its way to game 7, we will see a matchup that has two franchises who are starving for playoff success. The Islanders last saw a playoff series win in 1993. Similarly, the Cats haven't won only one since their Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1996. Someone will end their drought, but will they be able to pursue a deep playoff run and defeat the Bolts in round two? Only time will tell.