Internet Hotstove is a series where Last Word On Sports asks the opinions of respected bloggers from around the internet about their team’s chances in the 2013-14 NHL Playoffs. The goal is to get a broad view of opinion from around the league as an alternative to other playoff previews.
The fact that the Tampa Bay Lightning are even in the 2013-14 Stanley Cup playoffs is a big surprise. Before the season everyone considered them to be a bubble playoff team, with most even thinking that was too generous. In a tough Atlantic Division, probably the tougher of the two in the East, they would have to compete with Boston, Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Detroit for a playoff spot. But they would surprise everyone, finishing 2nd in the division and heading into the first round with home ice advantage over the Montreal Canadiens.
Meet the Bloggers:
WB Philp- Founder/ Editor-in-chief for Lightning Shout @LightningShout
John Fontana- Managing Editor for RawCharge.Com @Johnny_Fonts
1. Who is the Lightning’s biggest playoff x-factor?
Philp: Goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop’s regular season performance has him in the Vezina conversation (37-14-7, 2.23 GAA, .924 SV%). The Lightning seem to play a little looser in front of him. According to team sources, there is no structural damage to the wrist and if Bishop can come back in time for the playoffs, Tampa Bay can beat anyone.
Fontana: Under present circumstances, it’s goalie Anders Lindback. The Swedish netminder has seen limited action this season and has not posted impressive numbers. He has been in the doghouse with goalie coach Frantz Jean and his lack of playing time during the regular season has raised questions of lack of trust/lack of faith in his abilities in goal.
But with circumstances having changed significantly as the NHL season closed (which we’ll go into further in question #2) the club needs to put faith in Lindy, and Lindy must rise to the occasion.
2. Can the Lightning win without Ben Bishop?
Philp: In a word, yes. Anders Lindback’s overall numbers are simply not good (7-12-2, 3.05 GAA, .888 SV%), but the sample size is very small. Lindback is known as a tireless worker and he is well liked by his teammates. After Ben Bishop went down, Lindback’s April numbers were exceptional (3-1, 1.50 GAA, .954 SV%). The Bolts have rallied around Lindy and his confidence is growing. If Lindback suffers an injury, Tampa Bay will be in serious trouble, as 21 year old rookie Kristers Gudlevskis will be counted on. He has played one NHL game, beating the Blue Jackets, but depending on a young and inexperienced prospect is a scary thought.
Fontana: Yes. This is especially true when you compare Bishop’s own play down the stretch (pretty below-average, actually) while being overused, to the performance of Lindback in limited opportunities at various times through the season.
If the Lightning can put out the same effort in front of Lindback (or rookie netminder Kristers Gudlevskis) that they’ve put out for Ben Bishop, they should be just fine. If they think they are going to be bailed out with a half-hearted effort (as they had with Bishop in the crease a few times earlier in the season), the team will pay dearly for it. That’s not to be seen as an indictment on Lindback as-so-much a reminder that this is the playoffs, and the margin for error has shrunk drastically.
3. There isn’t very much playoff experience within this roster. How do you think this will factor in?
Philp: It won’t. Nearly all of the Bolts young players are seasoned AHL playoff veterans, who under Coach Jon Cooper won the 2011-12 AHL Calder Cup championship. Cooper has masterfully guided these players from promising prospects to integral cogs in the Lightning lineup. Forwards Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and defenseman Radko Gudas all have over 90 NHL games under their belt. Palat (23-36-59) and Johnson (24-26-50) are both in the Calder Trophy conversation.
Fontana: There is experience, but it’s individually and not as a group. Veterans like Eric Brewer, Ryan Callahan, Matt Carle, Valtteri Filppula, and Sami Salo have all been there with different clubs. There aren’t many holdovers from the Lightning’s last playoff run (Brewer, Victor Hedman, Ryan Malone – who will likely miss the playoffs after his DUI arrest on April 12th, Teddy Purcell, Steven Stamkos and Nate Thompson) but that experience was a memorable one to have, running all the way to game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Lightning’s “Tampacuse” core of rookies and second year players (Mark Barberio, J.T. Brown, Radko Gudas, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Richard Panik) are versed in AHL playoff experience as a cohesive group for the most part, though that’s not exactly comparable to the NHL playoffs. It is an experience to draw from, though.
This group doesn’t have joint playoff experience, but don’t underestimate them on experience. It really shouldn’t be a drawback with the players. Though, I do have to wonder if it will be a drawback for first-year NHL coach Jon Cooper.
4. Did the Callahan for St. Louis trade help or hurt your Cup chances this year?
Philp: This is a difficult one. Losing Martin St. Louis’ offense (62 games, 29 goals, 32 assists) certainly hurts, but the soap opera that was playing out in the media was hurting the team’s cohesiveness. Ryan Callahan has come in and immediately provided the grit that was lacking from the Bolts lineup. His play in both zones has been inspirational. St. Louis is not the all-around player that Callahan is and Callahan isn’t the offensive force that St. Louis is. Callahan’s two-way play coupled with the returning Steven Stamkos’ offensive production makes the Bolts a better team now than they were with St. Louis in the lineup.
Fontana: I would say it’s a draw at this point, meaning no clear difference if it helps or hurts playoff chances. Martin St. Louis brought veteran leadership and his scoring touch, along with chemistry with Tampa Bay’s top offensive cogs in Stamkos and Palat, but Ryan Callahan has stepped in with a very responsible game and has clicked with the team in general, fitting right in and contributing offensively and defensively. Is his production the same as Marty? Not the pre-trade St. Louis, no. But that’s not every integral part to what Cally is bringing.
I call it a draw; I don’t feel like the Bolts lost a step with this deal, though intangibles have shifted.
5. How far do you expect the Lightning to go?
Philp: The Lightning are a young, up and coming team that could make a long run through the playoffs if things fall right. Realistically though, I expect them to give Montreal a battle and win a long series. Their reward will probably be the opportunity to play the Boston Bruins. The Bruins are a grizzled, physical playoff savvy team, with the best goaltender in hockey behind them. If they beat the Red Wings it will be a rough go for the Bolts against them. If the Red Wings upset the Bruins, the Lightning will go into that series with confidence. The Bolts have defeated Detroit four out of the five times they met this season. No matter what transpires this playoff season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are an Eastern Conference beast in the making.
Fontana: I honestly can’t say. I don’t expect a one-and-done, but it’ll be a challenge going much further than the divisional or conference final if the Lightning are to play against Boston or Pittsburgh. While they’ve put forth solid efforts against both clubs, they’ve been whipped in the end result.
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