A couple of thoughts as the league resumes play today after the All-Star Break.
February Test Awaits Bolts: This week, the Lightning wrap up a stretch of five out of six games at home. Then February begins. It’s going to be a tough month. The Lightning play 12 games in February, with only four at home. All 12 are against Western Conference clubs. The Lightning have already knocked out nine of their 13 sets of back-to-back games, but three of the remaining four sets will happen in February.
The month will feature games against many of the NHL’s elite clubs – the Lightning face the L.A. Kings, Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues twice each. They also have games against the Central Division-leading Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks. Despite an up-and-down year so far this season, the Kings are the defending Stanley Cup Champs. The Ducks (1st), Predators (2nd), Blues and Blackhawks (tied 6th) own four of the highest seven point totals in the league. (Of course, the Lightning, with 64 points, rank third.) The Bolts will also see Dallas, San Jose, Arizona and Colorado, all on the road.
Eleven of the twelve games will take place in the first 22 days of the month. With all the travel, the Lightning won’t have much time for practice in that three-week period. Practice time is valuable in correcting little mistakes that can creep into a team’s game.
Lightning players have spoken about being a better road team in the second half of the season. If they want to get through February successfully, they’ll need to make some noise on the road, in some tough buildings. But if they can do it, their game will undoubtedly be sharpened for the home stretch of the regular season.
Nine For Eight In East?: The top eight teams qualify for the playoffs in each Conference. While no team has been officially eliminated from contention, there are several clubs essentially out of the running. In the East, Buffalo and Carolina are 20 or more behind the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals, who are currently tied for the two wildcard spots. Closer, but still a great distance away, are the New Jersey Devils (15 points back), Columbus Blue Jackets (14 points back) and Philadelphia Flyers (12 points back). The Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs both trail by 10 points. At this point in the season, even ten points is a substantial deficit. One that may be insurmountable. The Sens and Leafs have to contend with the reality that the clubs they are chasing will play “three-point” (OT) games. And that both teams will have to leapfrog multiple squads ahead of them.
That leaves one Eastern team outside the top eight: Florida. The Panthers trail the Bruins and Caps by seven points, but they have only played 44 games. That’s two less than the Caps and four fewer than Boston. Winning even just two of those four extra games puts the Panthers within three points of Boston – a manageable number. Also, unlike the Sens and Leafs, who have been more inconsistent than not this year, the Panthers have played steady hockey all season. They’ve been competitive in most of their games (they’ve played 16 overtime games so far – only Anaheim and Colorado have been in more) and they only have to catch one team to move into the top eight. I just don’t think the Panthers are going away.
Assuming Florida doesn’t drop off, nine teams will be battling for eight spots. As it stands now, only seven points separate the Lightning – in the first slot – from the Caps and Bruins. Which means, barring a Florida collapse, that any of those nine is vulnerable. Especially if one or more of them endures an extended slump. It would set up an interesting game of musical chairs for the rest of the regular season.