Checking on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s most likely first round playoff opponents

Who do you want the Bolts to play?

With only fifteen games to go in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s season, we’re entering scoreboard watching time. The Bolts have all but secured their spot at the top of the Eastern Conference (wood knock) but who they’ll face in the opening round is far from set. As of now, four teams could easily end up being the first round opponent.

If a fourth team is going to make the playoffs from the Atlantic, the Montreal Canadiens are by far the most likely. And if they make it, they would probably be the first round opponent for Tampa. But the Metropolitan Division could still secure both wild cards. The Carolina Hurricanes, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Columbus Blue Jackets are all competing for third place in the Metro. The two teams that don’t earn that spot will be in contention with Montreal for the two wild card spots.

The following chart is from Hockey Viz and shows the probability that the Lightning will face  each team still in the race. The four teams mentioned above are the most likely but other teams remain a possibility in less likely scenarios.

As of this morning, the mostly likely first round opponent for the Lightning will be the Canadiens, followed closely by the Blue Jackets. Carolina and Pittsburgh have the inside track on third place in the Metro and the first wild card so they are less likely. But we’re at the point in the season where one or two games for each team is enough to shuffle this order and things will change weekly.

So which of these teams would should Lightning fans he hoping to face in the first round? To get a read on each team, we’ll take a look at a leaguewide heatmap using stats from Offside Review. The teams are sorted by 5v5 expected goal share.

Let’s get the first thing out of the way: I want no part of the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round. They’ve been one of the best teams in the league all year but a horrendous shooting percentage early in the season sunk their results. They’re now getting the wins they deserve and look like a nightmare matchup for someone. Let’s hope they finish third in the Metro and the Lightning don’t have to worry about them until the Eastern Conference Final.

Among the other three, things get complicated. On paper, the Canadiens are the best team. But hoping for an opening round matchup against the Penguins seems unwise. They still have Sidney Crosby. They still have Evgeni Malkin. They still have Kris Letang. They don’t have the depth they’ve had in the past but looking at their profile in the heatmap, they have very few weaknesses.

The Columbus Blue Jackets grade the worst here but most of these numbers come from before they added Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to an already decent team. If they can figure out a way to incorporate the new players and get everyone playing to their potential including Sergie Bobrovsky, they could become a threat to pull off a first-round upset.

Montreal has been a surprise this season. Like Carolina, they had a rough start to the year. But their issue wasn’t shooting percentage. Instead, it was save percentage. But Carey Price has been improving all season and is now playing well. If he sustains that, Montreal would erase its main weakness making them a complete team heading into the playoffs.

All four of the possible first round matchups present challenges. And that’s to be expected. This is the playoffs after all. If I had to choose, I think I would lean toward either Columbus or Montreal. Carolina is a definite no go and I think I’d still prefer to avoid Crosby as long as possible. That might be a bit unfounded based on how Pittsburgh has played this year but I’m hesitant to call their window of contention closed until I see them make multiple early playoff exits.

Vote in the poll below on your preferred opponent and let us know in the comments what you’re thinking. We’ll check in every so often over the final weeks to keep an eye on the races and as we get closer to the end of the season, keep you updated on which games are most important to seeding. The playoffs aren’t here yet. But it’s time to start getting ready.

Who would you prefer the Lightning play in the first round?

Montreal Canadiens267
Columbus Blue Jackets142
Pittsburgh Penguins46
Carolina Hurricanes48