No matter: the Bolts are headed back to the postseason and will begin play at Amalie Arena Wednesday or Thursday for Game 1 of a First Round rematch with the Detroit Red Wings.
To put it mildly, 2015-16 has been a topsy-turvy year for a Tampa Bay team coming off its second-ever appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
The road last year was smooth, straightforward.
This year’s has been anything but.
The Lightning, however, reached their destination. Now begins the second season: the playoffs.
We’ll look back at how the Lightning were able to make it to the postseason for a third-consecutive season and their chances for another run at the Stanley Cup in our last regular-season installment of 3 Things.
1. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
No one could ever accuse the Bolts for being boring.
Perhaps no team in the NHL faced as much drama in 2015-16 than the Tampa Bay Lightning. Even before the season began, the hockey world was fixated on the contract status of captain Steven Stamkos. Would he re-sign with Tampa Bay? Would he leave the Lightning via free agency in the summer? Would Lightning GM Steve Yzerman deal Stamkos before the trade deadline to get something back for his prized asset?
Those questions remain – well, except the last since the trade deadline has come and gone -- as Stamkos has yet to sign a contract extension with the start of free agency less than three months away.
Then came the Jonathan Drouin saga.
The talented second-year forward was reassigned to Syracuse on January 2 after coming off a lengthy injury and played with the Crunch for seven games before refusing to play in a game against the Toronto Marlies, leading to his suspension on January 20. A trade Drouin requested back in November became public in January. The consensus among media was Yzerman would have to deal Drouin at the trade deadline.
And yet, here we are at the end of the regular season and Jonathan Drouin is a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has scored a goal in both games since returning to the Lightning and will be counted on heavily during the Bolts’ postseason run.
Yzerman handled the situation as well as could be expected. He searched for a deal for Drouin that would net the Bolts pieces to help their playoff run, but when none presented themselves, Yzerman hung onto his asset. On March 7, Drouin decided to return to the Crunch, and the Lightning lifted the suspension. In Syracuse, Drouin lit the AHL on fire, scoring nine goals in his last nine games with the Crunch before injuries in Tampa Bay gave the talented winger a second chance with the Bolts, a chance that he’s taken full advantage of.
What once seemed to be an untenable situation has now become salvageable.
Things were just as shaky on the ice for the Lightning too. A slow start spurred by last season’s lengthy playoff run combined with injuries to key players early in the season led to the Lightning being left out of the postseason picture by the end of 2015. After New Year’s however, the Lightning went on a seven-game win streak to get back into playoff position. A month later, the Bolts set a franchise record by winning nine games in a row, in the process, sweeping a four-game road trip for the first time in team history, to challenge for the Atlantic Division title.
The Lightning missed out on their third division title after going 7-9-1 following the nine-game win streak but the Bolts secured their spot in the postseason and clinched home ice for the first round.
And after the twists and turns of the regular season, the postseason promises to be even more intriguing.
2. INJURIES WILL MAKE OR BREAK THIS TEAM IN THE PLAYOFFS
There are two schools of thought surrounding the rash of injuries (or medical conditions) that have befallen Tampa Bay of late.
One, the Lightning will never recover from losing their leading scorer, a top defensemen and three other key players that may be in or out of the lineup when the puck drops for Game 1 against Detroit, and their stay in the postseason will be short.
Or, the situation will galvanize the Bolts, who will rally behind their fallen leaders, benefit from increased production from a handful of talented younger players and remain alive in the postseason until all of their pieces can return for a run at the Cup.
The way this season has gone, either scenario seems plausible.
Injuries are a way of life in the NHL, but certainly no team has been hit harder going into the playoffs than the Lightning.
The news was already bad enough when it was learned Anton Stralman would be out indefinitely after suffering a non-displaced fracture of his left fibula in a game against the Islanders on March 25, robbing an already thin back line of its most dependable player.
A little more than a week later, Yzerman announced Stamkos would miss the next one to three months and would need surgery to treat a type of Vascular Thoracic Syndrome near his right collarbone. If you’re making a list of the most indispensable players on the Lightning roster, Stralman and Stamkos would be near the top if not Nos. 1 and 2.
Piling on further, Victor Hedman sustained an upper-body injury in game No. 79 of the regular season and hasn’t played since. Ryan Callahan was injured in the same game and has yet to play again. And in a meaningless game Saturday night, Tyler Johnson took an unnecessary shove from the Canadiens’ Greg Pateryn and slammed hard into the boards. Johnson sat out the remainder of the game, and his status going forward is unclear.
The Lightning might get Hedman, Callahan and Johnson back for Game 1 of the Detroit series. Or they might not. Either way, this 2015-16 Bolts will be defined by the injuries they sustained late in the season and how they responded to the major setbacks.
3. BISH PLEASE
The one constant for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015-16 has been veteran netminder Ben Bishop.
Bishop set a new Lightning and personal record for wins in a season (40) and led the Bolts to the brink of hockey’s pinnacle last year.
This season, Bishop has been even better.
On October 17, he set the franchise record for career wins (84) in a victory over Buffalo.
On March 19, he established a new Lightning high for career shutouts (15) by a Bolts goalie after blanking the Coyotes in Arizona.
His 2.06 goals-against average over 61 games this season leads the NHL currently and ties John Grahame (2003-04) for best in Bolts history. Grahame only played in 29 games though.
Bishop’s .926 save percentage is tied for second best in the league with one more day of games before the regular season officially concludes.
At 29 years old, Bishop was selected to his first NHL All-Star Game this season.
He should also win his first Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL’s best netminder, when the league announces their annual awards in late June.
Washington’s Braden Holtby might have more wins (48) and St. Louis’ Brian Elliott does have a slightly better save percentage (.930), but neither has been as valuable to his team as Bishop. When the Lightning were struggling to find consistency early in the season, Bishop was there time and time again to bail them out.
Consider: Tampa Bay was 29-11-1 this season when Bishop gave up two goals or less, meaning there were 12 games, mostly before Jan. 1, when Bishop gave his team a chance to win but the Bolts’ inefficient offense, which hadn’t yet hit its stride, wasted the performance.
With so many injuries to key players, Bishop will be counted on even more heavily to build a wall around the Bolts’ net during the playoffs.
Here’s guessing Bishop will be more than up for the challenge.