The end of February is near, the trade deadline has passed and the sprint to the finish of the regular season is on. For the Lightning, they have 19 regular season games remaining. The teams that they will face generally fall into one of three categories: those in an advantageous standings position, those hovering on either side of the playoff cut line and those that are too far back to make a legitimate run at a playoff spot. Each type of opponent poses particular challenges.
Teams in an advantageous position
These teams are not completely secure in their positioning and they all have plenty of work to do before they can potentially clinch a playoff berth. Even the Lightning, with a 15-point lead on the next closest team in the league and a 19-point edge on the second place club in the East, haven't yet officially clinched.
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But not only would all these clubs qualify if the playoffs started today, they each have a bit of separation between themselves and trailing teams that are closer to the playoff cut line. They may have made a move (or several moves) at or prior to the deadline, looking to bolter their lineup for what they hope will be a deep playoff run. They are some of the top teams in the league, so they will provide stiff competition for the Lightning in these upcoming regular season matchups. Like the Lightning, they will be looking to hone their game in advance of the playoffs. These figure to be high-intensity games with a playoff-type feel. It's possible that the Lightning could see some of these teams later in the spring.
Ten of the final 19 games will be played against teams in this category. In the East, there's Boston (three), Toronto (two) and Washington (three). Then there are single contests against the West's Winnipeg and St. Louis.
Close to the playoff cut line
These teams are going to bring the highest desperation and urgency level. They will be playing for survival. They will also be dealing with the most pressure. In recent games, the Lightning have seen a number of teams in this category (Montreal, Columbus and Philadelphia) and have effectively handled the challenge, winning all three. Naturally, as the regular season winds down, the outlook for these teams may become rosier. Or bleaker. But for now, they are all still in the mix, hovering on either side of that cut line.
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The Lightning only see only four teams in this category. They have single games left against Montreal, Carolina, Minnesota and Arizona. The Montreal contest doesn't happen until the regular season's final week, so the stakes could be extremely high for the Habs on that night.
Out of it
The Lightning just saw a team from this group. The Los Angeles Kings entered Monday's game 46 points behind the Lightning in the standings. But as the Bolts saw last night, these can be tough games. Often these clubs have moved out veteran players at the deadline and are fielding a roster with youngsters. Those players bring high energy and enthusiasm to the game. Also, these teams tend to play freely, unburdened by the pressure facing clubs battling for playoff positioning.
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In fact, sometimes they post critical wins over teams well ahead of them in the standings. The Lightning remember well a costly home loss to Arizona and their goalie Louis Domingue in March of 2017, when the Lightning were making a late push for the playoffs and the Coyotes were near the bottom of the standings. Last year, they lost another late season home game to the lottery-bound Coyotes.
There are five games against teams that have moved out players at the deadline and are well back of the playoff cut line: Ottawa (2), Detroit (2) and the New York Rangers.
So there could be a different vibe from game-to-game, depending on the opponent. The Lightning may experience that on this upcoming road trip, as they play on back-to-back nights against the Rangers and Bruins.