In the 2002-03 season, the Lightning won their division and qualified for the playoffs. It was only the second time in franchise history that the club had made the postseason – and the Bolts captured their first-ever playoff series when they ousted Washington in the opening round. The team’s success was surprising to many – the club wasn’t expected to qualify for the playoffs, let alone win the division. The next year, of course, the Bolts won their division again, finished with the most points in the Eastern Conference and ultimately won the Stanley Cup.
Heading into the 2010-11 season, the Lightning, as was the case eight years earlier, were not considered a favorite to make the playoffs. But not only did that club qualify for the playoffs, it reached the Eastern Conference Final, losing in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. The following season was a disappointment, though. Tampa Bay missed the playoffs, finishing with the worst Goals Against Average in the league.
Certainly, every team is different – and it’s not completely fair to compare the fates of the ‘03-‘04 and ‘11-‘12 teams. Turnover from one year to the next was not identical, as was the makeup of those two rosters. Still, those examples illustrate that success in one season does not automatically translate to a winning campaign in the following year. This year’s Lightning team does not want the 2013-14 season – a year in which they (again) surprised many by earning 101 points and qualifying for the postseason – to be a one-hit wonder. The organizational plan has been to build the Lightning into a team that contends every year. For what it’s worth, many pundits feel that Tampa Bay will be an Eastern Conference contender this year. They point to the offseason additions, which shored up the blue line and added grit to the lineup, a healthy Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop and the continued maturation of the young core. But looking good on paper does not earn a club any points once the regular season begins. And there are challenges inherent with high expectations. The team isn’t going to surprise anyone this year. So how can the club build upon its 2013-14 success and once more claim one of the top spots in the East?
Ben Bishop: A couple of years ago in a first round playoff series, Ottawa defeated Montreal in five games. Throughout the series, Sens goalie Craig Anderson was outstanding. Following the clinching game, Ottawa Head Coach Paul MacLean quipped that he sometimes thinks they should change the name of the game from “hockey” to “goalie”.
His point, of course, is that the goaltender’s performance, often more than any other player’s, will dictate the outcome of a game. Last year, the Bolts received tremendous goaltending from Ben Bishop – he finished among the goalie leaders in every statistical category. It was his first full NHL season. Like the team he plays for, Bishop will aim to show that last year was the norm, not the exception. If Bishop can give the Bolts even close to the same standard of goaltending as he provided last year, the Lightning will be in very good shape.
Team Defense: Last year, the Lightning whittled over half a goal a game off their team Goals Against Average. They finished 11th in team defense, with a 2.55 GA/G average. This year, coaches want that number to be even lower. The additions of defensemen Jason Garrison and Anton Stralman should help, along with some tweaks to the system.
If the preseason is any indication, the Lightning seemed to have absorbed the concepts of the tweaked system. It wasn’t only that Tampa Bay allowed just eight goals in six preseason games, it was how well they executed the game-plan.
Certainly, the team will need to display a similar level of crisp execution once the regular season starts (and, as mentioned in the previous point, Bishop’s play will also affect the GAA number), but the club seems poised to improve their overall defensive play.
Stamkos and company: Steven Stamkos missed 45 games last year due to his broken leg – and, he admitted after the fact, didn’t feel like himself in his return. This year is a clean slate for him – and, simply put, if the Lightning are going to have success in 2014-15, Stamkos will be leading the way. In a similar vein, 2014 Calder Trophy Finalists Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will look to build upon their terrific rookie seasons. Defenseman Victor Hedman made enormous strides last year in his offensive production and consistent play – the Bolts look for his game to evolve even more. It’s true that hockey is a team game – and the club showed last year that it can win even without some of its top contributors in the lineup. But, as the expression goes, their best players need to be their best players.
A good start: If there’s one common denominator between the four successful seasons referenced in this column, it’s been a good start. The 2002-03, 2003-04, 2010-11 and 2013-14 clubs all enjoyed strong opening months. Putting early points in the bank help a club withstand minor dips that may occur later in the season. Conversely, a slow start forces a team into “catch-up” mode and it feels as though those clubs spend most of the year scrambling to gain points on those above the playoff cut line.
The Lightning open with four straight home games – and they have eight of the first 13 at Amalie Arena. It’ll be important for them to rack up points in those early contests.
So will the optimism on paper translate to the ice? We’ll start getting answers tonight!