It’s been months since any team in the East other than the Tampa Bay Lightning was considered to have any real chance at the top seed in the conference. The Lightning have been one of the most dominant regular season teams in recent memory, locking up the President’s Trophy more than two weeks ago and joining the 60-win club earlier this week.
What has also been clear for some time is that Tampa would be destined to face the Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round of the playoffs, as their two divisional rivals have been near the top of the league standings for much of the year and always on a collision course to play each other in round one due to the NHL’s current playoff format. Yet, it’s easy to forget that the Lightning too have to win in the first round. Many have taken it as a foregone conclusion that Tampa would advance, but upsets occur in sports and the Lighting are as susceptible to a collapse as any heavy favorites that have fallen in the past.
So who has the best chance to knock off the regular season champs? Well, the defending Stanley Cup winners would have been an ideal match-up, but the Washington Capitals pulled out of range of a wild card finish earlier this week and clinched the top seed in the Metropolitan Division with a win on Thursday. The New York Islanders, with their suffocating defensive style and stellar goaltending, also would have been an intriguing opponent, but they have also assured themselves of a non-wildcard spot. Finally, the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins would have made for a difficult and highly entertaining series with the Bolts, but a win on Thursday night guaranteed that they cannot finish any lower than seventh in the conference.
That leaves three potential opponents for Tampa Bay in round one: the Carolina Hurricanes, the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the Montreal Canadiens. Two of these three teams will make the playoffs – Carolina has clinched a playoff berth with a Thursday night victory – but only one will be lucky enough to land the second wild card spot and go up against the Lightning. Of these three, which one could pull off the eight seed upset?
The Hurricanes are on pace to finish seventh in the East and avoid Tampa and they cannot be caught by the Canadiens. However, if the the Blue Jackets pass by Carolina, the team would have to celebrate their first postseason in ten years by playing the Bolts. The ’Canes could give the Lightning problems with their ability to suppress shots, as they are the only team in the conference that allows less than 29 shots per game on average. A defense corps that is among the deepest and most talented in the league makes offense a struggle for the opposition and the added bonus of consistent play in net explains why Carolina is eighth-best in the league in goals against per game. Despite the franchise’s lack of postseason experience of late, Justin Williams and Jordan Staal are also major assets when it comes to playing smart, tough playoff hockey. The main concern for the Hurricanes though is that they have not been as successful offensively as they have been defensively. Despite leading the league in shots per game, the team is 16th in goals for per game and 20th on the power play and they’ve lacked game-breaking scoring talent this season outside of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. It’s impossible to expect to shutout Tampa Bay, so if Carolina can’t find some secondary scoring they could struggle against the Bolts.
As of now, Columbus looks like the favorite to finish eighth and play Tampa. That might not be what GM Jarmo Kekalainen expected when he added Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Adam McQuaid at the trade deadline, but those moves will certainly help anyway. The Blue Jackets franchise has never won a playoff series and doing so against this Lightning team would be a tall task. However, they have both considerable talent and a chip on their shoulder. Like Carolina, Columbus does not allow many shots nor many goals and additionally have the best penalty kill in the conference. Unlike Carolina, they also have a star goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky. The Jackets would need Bobrovksy to shake off past struggles in the postseason, but if he does the Vezina Trophy-winner could be a game-changer. Offensively, Columbus has had an up-and-down year but are currently 12th in goals for per game. Duchene and Dzingel are major additions to a forward unit that already included elite talent like Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson. Unfortunately, all of this ability up front has still not led to consistent offense nor has it cured a miserable power play. Failure to capitalize on opportunities could be the Achilles heel of this team.
Then there’s Montreal, who need some help to make the playoffs, but could make waves if they do. The Canadiens can only end up in the eighth seed, so it’s Tampa or bust. Montreal can never quite be counted out with Carey Price in net and Shea Weber on the blue line, but the question is whether the other pieces are there to pull off not one but four wins against the Bolts. To their credit, the Habs have been a very balanced, consistent team this season that is right in the middle of the pack when it comes to goals and shots for as well as goals and shots against. Their power play is dead last in the NHL, which is obviously not typical of a playoff team, but it’s hard to find many other holes in their game. The problem is that nothing jumps out as being good enough for a massive upset, either. If Max Domi and Tomas Tatar stay hot and Price stands on his head as usual, anything is possible, but the Canadiens have simply been a good team and anyone who beats the Lightning will need to be great. Can they step up?
What do you think? The standings might say Columbus is the most likely opponent for Tampa Bay at this point, but who would be the toughest match-up for the President’s Trophy winners?