Which team in either conference can give the Lightning the toughest matchup?
SEAN: Still believe it’s the Capitals. Washington was able to do a good job of shot suppression in the Eastern Conference Final last year against the Lightning, and they have mostly the same roster. Losing Michael Kempny will hurt, but they also have Braden Holtby behind the blue line. The same Holtby who posted back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 a year ago.
JAMES: Honestly, there’s a credible threat every step of the way, including a relatively formidable Round 1 opponent in Columbus. My pick is the Penguins, for two simple seasons: 1) this accounts for two rounds of wear-and-tear and 2) Pittsburgh ranks as one of the few teams with firepower that at least approaches Tampa Bay’s ridiculous arsenal. I believe the Bruins/Maple Leafs are better teams than the Penguins, but I’d wager that Tampa Bay enters Round 2 far fresher than whoever wins that Boston – Toronto slugfest. With Matt Murray quietly finishing the season on a hot streak, the Penguins formula of “potent offense + deeply shaky defense + Murray standings on his head” might just pay dividends for another run.
(But no, the Lightning are winning it all.)
ADAM: The Lightning are clearly the favorites here but no team is unbeatable, and if anyone is going to knock off the Lightning it is going to be a team that has high-end talent at forward that can match them (or at least come close to matching them) and a really good goalie. I see two or three teams that fit that in the Eastern Conference. Boston is definitely one. Washington is one if Braden Holtby can get back to a Braden Holtby level of play. Pittsburgh is one if Matt Murray keeps playing the way he has since returning from injury in December. Those are the teams that I can see giving them the toughest fight. Boston would be the interesting one here because if both teams get through Round 1 you are going to have another situation where you have the two best teams in the league playing in Round 2 (the Bruins were tied with the Flames with 107 points for second best record), and the Bruins were every bit as good as that record indicates. That would be a brutally tough matchup that early in the playoffs for the Lightning.
JOEY: I feel like the Boston Bruins have the best chance of knocking out the Bolts. They’re not as deep as the Lightning (nobody is), but they found a way to overcome adversity throughout the year. The Bruins finished the year in the top five when it comes to man games lost due to injury, so their depth players also had to step up in 2018-19. Getting Tuukka Rask back on his game will be the key though. For the Bruins to sink the Lightning, they’ll need their goaltender to be better than Andrei Vasilevskiy. That might be asking a lot of Rask, but he’s shown that he can elevate his game when his team needs him most. It’s a shame these teams would have to meet in the second round though. Assuming this matchup happens at all, it will be a great series with a lot of high-end offensive players.
SCOTT: Boston. Cut out the final game of the season for both clubs and two of their four matchups were affairs settled by one goal and the other was Boston winning convincingly 4-1. Sure, Tampa won three of four, but the Bruins showed they could run with the Lightning. Boston is the only team that compares. They ooze talent, too, and a good series featuring stellar goaltending from Tuukka Rask would throw a real wrench into things for Tampa. If Boston can remain disciplined, I think they could do it. And I’ve picked them to win the Cup this year because I believe they can be Tampa’s kryptonite.
RYAN: I picked the San Jose Sharks to win the Cup, but I think Pittsburgh or Washington will give the Lightning a really tough fight in the Eastern Conference Final, assuming that matchup happens. Honestly, the Lightning don’t have an easy road to the Cup. Even in the first round, while I fully expect the Lightning to beat Columbus,the Blue Jackets can’t be discounted. If Sergei Bobrovsky plays at his peak and trade acquisitions Matt Duchene/Ryan Dzingel step up in the playoffs in a way they haven’t since being acquired by Columbus then the Blue Jackets could surprise people. It’s a big if and the more likely scenario is that Tampa Bay will at least get past Columbus, but the point is despite winning 62 games in the regular season, the Lightning are far from untouchable.
Which team’s goaltending will be the reason they don’t make a Stanley Cup run?
SEAN: It’s hard to choose between San Jose and Calgary, but considering the season they had and expectations, I’d pick the Flames over the Sharks by a hair. Bill Peters has done a wonderful job in making them stronger on both sides of the ice. But the duo of Mike Smith and David Rittich gives me pause about thinking they could challenge for the Cup. You can’t win in the playoffs without having a number of tight, low-scoring games. I don’t see either goalie being capable of stealing a handful of a games to push the Flames ahead.
JAMES: It may actually come down to which coaches would actually change goalies if things went south, and which ones would stubbornly go down with the ship. I feel like the Flames would be quicker to move away from Mike Smith (on an expiring contract) than the Sharks would with Martin Jones (who’s terrifyingly signed through 2023-24). So, the Sharks are the biggest worry to me.
Allow one wild card, though: Vegas. Marc-Andre Fleury played to end the season, but he missed quite a bit of time with injury, and I can’t help but worry that Gerard Gallant ran the veteran goalie into the ground. If MAF is some mixture of rusty, injured, and/or beat-up, the Golden Knights could be in big trouble.
ADAM: As much as I do not trust the Calgary Flames’ situation, and for as hit-and-miss as Marc-Andre Fleury has been at times this season, and for as bad as Sergei Bobrovsky’s playoff history is, there can be no other answer here other than the San Jose Sharks. You can not hide from the worst team save percentage in hockey and two of the worst individual goaltending performances in the league. This team has everything to be a Stanley Cup contender this season except for the goalie.
JOEY: I have to go with San Jose. They have all the tools to go on a long run, but Martin Jones’ play has left a lot to be desired this year. If he can go back to playing like he did a couple of years ago, the Sharks would have a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup. Without him, they could get bounced in the first round. That’s how big of a factor he’ll be for them this postseason. He doesn’t even have to be great, but he needs to make sure he’s not the reason his team loses big games.
SCOTT: San Jose, who edge out the Calgary Flames because the Flames have two goalies they can turn to. Martin Jones had a .896 save percentage this season. Yes, a sub .900 save percentage on a team that finished in second place in the Pacific Division. While that might cut it in the regular season (and really, I don’t know how it did), it won’t in the playoffs. Just ask Sergei Bobrovsky what saving fewer than 90 percent the of shots you face in the playoffs means. Heck, you don’t need him to answer that. It means no playoff series wins.
RYAN: If the Sharks fall short, it will be because of Martin Jones. He certainly left plenty to be desired in the regular season. The Calgary Flames are another team that stands out with its questionable goaltending
Who will be this year’s John Druce, the player who delivers an unlikely scoring surge?
SEAN: It may not last very long, but how about a nostalgic run from Jason Spezza, who only scored eight times during the regular season for the Stars. It was only three years ago he popped in 13 in the postseason for Dallas and 12 years since he scored 20 during the Ottawa Senators’ run to the Cup Final.
JAMES: When you’re looking for the next Chris Kontos/Devante Smith-Pelly/Fernando Pisani, you can do worse to look for someone fighting for a future job. With a cap crunch coming, Ryan Callahan has to know that the Lightning want to get rid of his $5.8 million contract one way or another. Callahan seems like the type who could have one of those inspiring runs where a veteran scores a bunch of unexpected goals.
Bonus choice: Teddy Blueger, because I smile every time I see his name, and is even better when he goes by Theodore. Also, he played a stretch with Phil Kessel on his line, so maybe that would happen again.
ADAM: Just keeping thinking the St. Louis Blues keep this roll they have been on going throughout the playoffs, and Oskar Sundqvist has quietly had a really good season with 14 goals, 17 assists. Maybe he does not reach double digits in the playoffs, but I could see him scoring quite a few big goals in the postseason.
JOEY: I’ll go with Bruins forward Chris Wagner. He found a way to score 12 goals for the Bruins while playing a bottom-six role. He’s a physical player that has 21 games of playoff experience. The Bruins can’t just rely on their top line plus David Krejci to get the job done. They need everyone chipping in, so I expect someone like Wagner to step up along the way.
SCOTT: I’d like to take David Backes here for fun, but he may not play that much. Since I’ve got he Bruins winning the Cup, however, it’s a good bet that it would be someone on Boston. I’m going to go with Marcus Johannson. He was pretty solid in a couple of the Washington Capitals playoff runs. Teams facing Boston are going to have a tough time with their two top lines, meaning more to feast on for the bottom six. Johansson hasn’t done too much in his time with Boston, so now is the time to introduce himself in a big way.
RYAN: It’s a stretch, but as long as we’re talking about unlikely, I’ll say Derek Ryan. He’s a 32-year-old late bloomer with 41 career goals and no NHL playoff experience, but he’s something of a hot-and-cold player offensively with some pretty good hot streaks to his name. He’s going into the playoffs on one of those hot streaks with six goals and 13 points in his last 13 games.