Like a good Panther fan, I’ve been scoreboard watching all season long, rooting against the Capitals, Jets, Senators, Maple Leafs, Devils, and any other team somewhere close to my team in the Eastern Conference. But if there is one team that has fallen off my radar of teams to perpetually hate, it has been the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Last night, the Panthers got a taste of just what the Lightning are capable of offensively. Tampa Bay had a four-goal second period, and the Panthers were defensively not on the same level. It probably should’ve been expected in our third game in four nights. Our defense was sluggish, Scott Clemmensen did not rest at all, and the forwards’ legs were too heavy to backcheck the Lightning rushes at all.
One could argue that the Lightning cought the Panthers in a perfect storm of defensive struggles, but it is just as easy to make another point: the Lightning may be ready to throw their hat into the division race.
Only a few months ago, that seemed unheard of as they were neck ad neck with the Carolina Hurricanes for the worst record in the East. It was apparent that their starting goaltender, Dwayne Roloson, would not kick his incredible slump. Their defense was injured to the point that teams could run up the score on them almost nightly. Their special teams were dismal, despite their star power at the forward position.
But this Lightning team seems like a better team. Mathieu Garon is filling in better at goal. The blue line is starting to recover from injury and play up to snuff again. Steven Stamkos, Vinny Lecavalier, and Marty St. Louis are back to their scoring ways. And if GM Steve Yzerman can find a way to make a deal despite their depleted farm system, the Lightning could acquire a promising young goaltender to put them in serious contention.
The one piece of good news for the Panthers is that they won’t have to face this Lightning team for the rest of the year. They can count on them to try and beat up on their conference and division foes, however. But what worries me is maybe the Lightning could do too good of a job beating the rest of the division and sneak up on the Panthers as another possible heir to the division crown. They are only eight points back from the Panthers after all, with plenty of time left on the schedule
If the Lightning can continue to score six goals a night, maybe they could. But it still seems unlikely. The Lightning’s defense and goaltending still was fairly poor in their win against the Panthers. Even when Guy Boucher employed his archaic 1-2-2 trap defense to try to intercept the Panthers at mid-ice, they couldn’t do it effectively. The Panthers were too often able to skate through the defense and into the Tampa Bay zone. What killed the Panthers last night was complacent passing wich led to turnovers and odd-numbered breakouts the other way for the Lightning. Tampa Bay also had to lean heavily on their top three players: Stamkos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier. They were in rare form last night, picking their spots and nailing them against an abandoned Clemmensen. But it’s a comfort to think that that top line won’t be able to produce at that rate every night.
Overall, from a big picture perspective, this Lightning team is a team the Panthers should be keeping an eye on from afar. The Lightning have very exploitable holes outside of their top line, but they just might be able to ride their offense up to contention.
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