For the past few seasons, the Lightning have been the top team in their division. They’ve been the club the Bruins had to (hypothetically) get past; the team in the way of Toronto, the President’s Trophy winner, and last year, the Stanley Cup champions.
This season, they were projected to be that top team again, but this time away from Toronto and Boston.
Instead, they’ve had their work cut out for them; Carolina is in their weight class, and Florida might be as well.
The Hurricanes have a better goal differential; both they and the Panthers are difficult to beat at home. And it’s not a given Tampa Bay will have home ice in the first round, even with a game in hand over Florida after their win over Detroit on Sunday.
Carolina has the best power play in the league at 27 percent and fourth best penalty kill at 84.6 percent. They’ve separated themselves as one of the elite clubs in the entire league with some of the best depth.
Florida has hung around after a quick start and the additions of Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour seems to have invigorated the Panthers even further.
Neither of them are going to roll over for the perennially dominant Lightning.
Tampa itself is not less dominant than past years. It’s 53.19 expected goals percentage for this season is not far off from its 53.51 a year ago. A difference is Florida, at 50.59 a year ago and now at 54.06.
It’s nearly inevitable the Bolts will face Florida in the first round, whether that be on home ice or opening in Sunrise. Where it takes place might depend on the result of their upcoming back-to-back two-game set.
The good news for Tampa Bay is, no matter where and who they play, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov should give a boost to the lineup. There’s an argument to made to rest the other veterans a bit as the season comes to a close, with no possibility of dropping into the fourth playoff spot.
That’s especially good news after they could only garner one win in the two-game set this weekend with the lowly Red Wings. It could have been worse, though, too. Another loss to the Red Wings and garnering a home-ice series in the first round would have been even more difficult.
5v5 expected goals after the first day of May pic.twitter.com/owlMv0xmv7
— Evolving-Hockey (@EvolvingHockey) May 2, 2021
Whether they rest up or play out these final games for a push for home ice, the Lightning aren’t that run-away favorite anymore. One could argue that belongs to the Hurricanes at this point, just two years removed from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, and playing one of their best seasons ever in 2021.
It’s going to make for a fascinating playoff in the Central, which looks a lot different than anyone would have expected. Aside from a potential Lightning road start to the postseason, their Stanley Cup foe from last year’s bubble, Dallas, is likely on the outside looking in, and Florida’s presence at all is another curveball.
Tampa Bay might not be the favorite this time around, but they shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Potentially the competition makes them stronger, too. Look at two years ago when they were the obvious favorite and were swept away by Columbus in the first round.
They already chased away those demons with their Cup victory a year ago, and maybe it’s naïve to think the Cup experience alone — with their injured guys returning — doesn’t make them the favorite.
The Lightning are dangerous, but to get out of their own division, everyone else they face is going to be pretty dangerous, too.
Marisa Ingemi is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Marisa_Ingemi.