After 61 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves under new ownership and only one point off the final playoff spot in the muddled Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay improved during the third quarter of the schedule, finding more consistency in their game and getting some excellent goaltending from Antero Niittymaki.
As we approach the final stretch of the season, let's review the past 61 games and look forward to what may come.
Third Quarter Record (20 games): 10-9-1
Current Pace: 35-32-15, 85 points
Most Valuable Player : Steven Stamkos, Forward
There is no player more important to the success of the Tampa Bay Lightning than Steven Stamkos. "Stammer" has been phenomenal this season for the Bolts, leading the team with 35 goals and is among team leaders with 70 points.
Stamkos has been particularly deadly on the power play, leading the entire league with 15 tallies.
At the ripe age of 19, Stamkos has already taken his spot among the league's elite players and together with Martin St. Louis, stands a great chance at leading his hockey team to the postseason.
Most Improved Player: Steve Downie, Forward
Acquired by the Lightning in 2008, Downie was a throw-in for a deal that saw Matt Carle go to the Flyers.
After a rough start with the Lightning, Downie has emerged as one of the most consistent players on the team. With a career high 15 goals and 36 points in 59 games, his tenacity along the boards and willingness to go to the front of the net have provided dividends for the Lightning all season.
Most Disappointing Player: Alex Tanguay, Forward
He was supposed to be the perfect wingman for Vincent Lecavalier and a source of secondary scoring. Instead, Alex Tanguay has managed just nine goals and 33 points for the Lightning this season.
A player that simply can't seem to live up to expectations, Tanguay has been benched and has languished on checking lines while the Lightning have scrambled to find linemates worthy of playing with Lecavalier.
Best Game of the season: Jan. 12—Lightning 7, Washington 4
Facing the league's best team and player, the Tampa Bay Lightning won a barn burner against the Washington Capitals.
The Lightning scored four times in the first period and took a 4-1 lead into intermission, then blew the lead in the second period, allowing the Caps to tie it. Marty St. Louis broke the tie late in the second period, and the Lightning added two more goals in the third period to put down Washington.
Antero Niittymaki relieved an injured Mike Smith and finished with 22 saves.
After that loss, the Capitals would go on to win 14 straight games.
Worst Game of the Season: Jan. 19—NY Rangers 8, Lightning 2
It really is funny how hockey is sometimes. Just a week after beating the tar out of arguably the best team in hockey, the Lightning went to Broadway and bombed worse than Carrie the Musical , giving up three goals in the first and two in the second before young goalie Dustin Tokarski was fed to the Lions.
Rangers coach John Tortorella, the former Lightning skipper, must have enjoyed every living second of this debacle.
What We've Learned: Through three quarters this season, we have learned that the Lightning are consistent at being inconsistent. After going 7-1-1 and rising as high as sixth in the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay limped into the Olympic break with three consecutive ugly losses.
On nights when the goaltending is good, the team knows they can win. When they're off, they know they can't.
Scoring has picked up for the Bolts and that's definitely a good thing; still the Bolts are in dire need of a puck-moving defenseman and a top four forward to team with Lecavalier (Vaclav Prospal, anyone?).
What We Don't Know: What the Lightning will do at the trade deadline is what we really don't know. New owner Jeffrey Vinik has already gone on record saying he is not interested in trading away Vincent Lecavalier. In fact, he's already said that GM Brian Lawton has the go ahead to be a "buyer" instead of a "seller" during the hectic final moments before the trade deadline.
I've been pretty consistent in saying I think the Lightning will fall short of the Eastern Conference playoffs, but to be honest, I'm not so sure anymore. When the team was going through its hot streak, you could see how this team deserved to be in the playoffs.
The Eastern Conference has certainly helped with everyone beating everyone else routinely; it's allowed the Lightning to stay in the race despite meandering around .500.
GM Brian Lawton needs to make some moves to ensure their run to the postseason, but I do think that this squad really can be the one that returns the Lightning to the playoffs.
Just imagine what a series it would be if Tampa Bay drew Washinton in the first round.
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