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The Lightning Are Almost Ready For Their Real Season To Begin

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 27: Tanner Jeannot #84 of the Tampa Bay Lightning battles for the puck against goalie Linus Ullmark #35 of the Boston Bruins during the third period at Amalie Arena on March 27, 2024 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)
Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

This is a goal that technically didn't happen, so it's especially important that I show it to you. It's an impressive bit of offensive pressure from the Tampa Bay Lightning in their big win over the Bruins on Wednesday, and it's courtesy of their Brandon Hagel/Anthony Cirelli/Steven Stamkos line. Hagel carried the puck across the blue line and messed up a pass to Cirelli, which gave away possession, but Stamkos skated quickly from dot to dot to provide pressure, and in doing so he helped create a turnover before the Bruins could get it out of their zone. The Lightning fired a shot attempt, then passed it around the perimeter before defenseman Erik Černák knocked the puck off a Boston leg. Luckily, it bounced diagonally into the sights of Stamkos, who slapped it home like he's done for 16 years. It turned out that the initial Hagel entry some 20 seconds earlier was offside, but that didn't change the final result of the game, so who cares?

That "goal" felt just right for Stamkos, who, like the Lightning, has struggled to get comfortable this season. Though the 34-year-old captain is still their third-leading scorer, the majority of his goals have come on the Bolts' league-leading power play. At five-on-five, Stamkos's defense is a liability, and his production hasn't been enough to make up for it. His career low minus-23 on a team with a goal differential of plus-17 is a sore spot for a guy who's used to being a huge part of why his guys win.

The Lightning get kind of a free pass in the regular season. In 2022, head coach Jon Cooper said straight-up, "Our sole goal is to get in, it doesn’t matter where we finish," and it makes sense why he feels that way. In 2019, the Bolts suffered through the indignity of a first-round sweep after a historically great regular-season run. Since then, the Lightning have yet to capture anywhere near the 128 points they earned in that abruptly ended campaign, but they've won two Stanley Cups and made it within two wins of a third.

But not everyone is willing to extend them the benefit of the doubt this time around. Last year was a merely acceptable regular season followed by a first-round exit at the hands of Toronto Maple Leafs, who never win in the first round. And after yet another summer spent wiggling out from the choking grip of the salary cap, they entered this year with their top scorers a year older, their roster a little shallower, their star goalie needing surgery, and their margin for error thinner than ever. This team would appear much closer to the end of its dynastic era than to its beginning.

Particularly without Andrei Vasilevskiy until Thanksgiving (and with him struggling to regain his old form once he returned), Tampa played their first chunk of the season like they'd seen too many autumns to care about one more. At the beginning of December, they'd only won 10 out of 24 games, which had them 12th in the East. They took small steps toward improvement over the winter, but their struggles came to a head after a 6-3 loss to Calgary on March 7, which dropped Tampa below the Islanders for the conference's last playoff spot. Cooper didn't hold back in his evaluation of the team. "The execution was horrendous but the decision-making was probably even worse than that," he said. "The product they put on the ice tonight for our fans, that's kind of inexcusable.”

The Bolts responded like the Bolts of old. They rubbed the Flyers' faces in the dirt, 7-0, then whipped the Rangers 6-3. Florida and Vegas fell next, then the Sharks (whatever), and even though an OT loss to the Kings served as a small speed bump, they've emerged victorious in their last two, including a very calm and assured Wednesday triumph against the standout Bruins.

The most obvious person to thank is Anthony Duclair, who debuted for the Lightning in that Flyers game after a trade from San Jose. The 28-year-old winger has made his reputation as premium support for playmaking lines— Jonathan Huberdeau was a great friend to him in Florida—and he's slotted perfectly into that top-line role alongside stalwarts Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. He's got five goals in eight games, all at even strength, to go with four assists. But what Duclair's appearance has also done is open up a new spot for Stamkos, where he can get critical defensive support from penalty-kill maestros Hagel and Cirelli while providing that familiar offensive spark.

It sure seems like the Lightning have got it all figured out, huh! I'm still concerned about Vasilevskiy's reliability, but what the Bolts are doing right now to shore up a playoff spot is the very definition of "peaking at the right time." Veterans of the long playoff grind, it feels as though the team was storing its energy, and now that the stakes are rising, they're addressing their remaining flaws and prepping for war. But the playoffs is still its own animal. Tampa knows better than anyone that the regular season doesn't predict anything.

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