The dream of competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup is a fragile one.
One swift event can result in the downfall of a franchise, and in Tampa Bay, many believed that was exactly what was going to happen after superstar Steven Stamkos was sidelined with a broken tibia after crashing into a net on the evening of November 11 in Boston.
What no one saw coming was the camaraderie that the Tampa Bay Lightning were able to build to propel the team to its current standing of third place in the Eastern Conference. With 71 points, the Lightning sit behind only Pittsburgh and Boston, both of which reached the conference finals last season.
Many deemed the Lightning finished as early as the day after news surfaced that Stamkos would be out indefinitely, but thanks to a squad led by captain Martin St. Louis, the dreams of a second Stanley Cup in 10 years were able to be salvaged.
Since his injury, the Lightning have gone 23-16-5 without the 24-year-old Stamkos. A few key players have stepped up in the wake of the incident, including St. Louis, Teddy Purcell and Ben Bishop in net.
Bishop, who sustained an upper-body injury on February 6 against the Maple Leafs, has been playing lights-out this season. He currently boasts a save percentage of .933, only second to Edmonton’s Ben Scrivens (.937). Bishop also ranks third when it comes to wins (28) and is tied for second for shutouts (four), so goaltending should not be a worry for the team come playoff time.
With Stamkos returning to action after the Olympic break, head coach Jon Cooper will have his hands full as he tries to come up with the best line concoction to make the Lightning one of the most feared teams in the NHL. To do that, however, the top line will be what makes or breaks this Tampa Bay team.
Ondrej Palat, Stamkos and St. Louis will most likely be the starting forward line to finish the season since they have worked well together when everyone was healthy.
Palat, the 22-year-old of the Czech Republic, has been having a fine season as of late. Through 58 games, he has 14 goals, 20 assists and 34 points along with a plus-21 plus/minus rating. The young winger has done a good job playing with Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn, but if Cooper wants to see what he really can do out on the ice, he will place Palat along with two of the NHL’s biggest names in St. Louis and Stamkos.
Stamkos and Palat will be a lethal goal-scoring tandem while the 38-year-old St. Louis can provide veteran wisdom come playoff time. Purcell, Valtteri Filppula and Killorn will provide some very valuable depth to the team as well.
Defensively, the Lightning can get by with Sami Salo and Victor Hedman. Salo will be able to provide valuable insight to the young Hedman and will look to give everything he has got this year because it may well be the 39-year-old Fins' last.
All signs point toward June for this team.
The Lightning have the talent to play with the Pittsburghs and the Chicagos of the league, so I will not even call them a dark horse this year. Unlike those teams, however, they will not be able to win on talent alone. If they are looking to make a deep run this year in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it will be because of team chemistry and the way the youth of the team will interact with the veterans.
This team proved that it can win without Stamkos, so it will be exciting to see what it can do with him again.