What's going on in Tampa Bay?

Living on Canada’s west coast, Tampa is about as far away from me as the NHL gets. So perhaps that’s why I never really paid much attention to the league’s perennial losing franchise, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But as of Saturday morning they’re sitting in first place in their division, seeded third in the conference. So what gives? I’ll try and explain. If any of you do actually follow Tampa Bay please feel free to jump in with any corrections, explanations, or conspiracy theories. Especially in regards to their coaching, which I don’t know enough about to comment on.

Goaltending

Khabibulin is Khabibulin. Everyone knows he’s solid. But where the team has really improved is in goal with mid-season acquisition John Grahame. Usually Tampa’s backup goaltending is so porous that it’s a wonder they don’t scout Florida beer leagues for a more capable guy. But Grahame has kept his GAA in Tampa under 2 and I think has been a big reason why Tampa’s been so successful recently.

Offense

No one mentions the Bolts with the top offensive teams, but they are currently ranked ninth in goals scored per game and are the only team in the league with five players who have 50 or more points (only Colorado, Detroit and Washington have four players who have reached the half century mark). Honestly, how many people took Prospal, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Richards or Boyle early in their pool?

It’s hard to pick one guy who’s really stood out from this crowd, but I’d go with defenseman Dan Boyle. Lecavalier and Richards have always had huge potential and Prospal and St. Louis were solid sleepers going into the season, but did anyone see Boyle doing this well? He’s nearly doubled his previous best points total from last season and has drastically turned it around in the plus/minus department.

If Tampa can keep this core they could have one hell of a blitzkrieg when young guys like Alexeev and Svitov come around.

Defense

The Bolts sit around the middle of the pack in GAA per game; they’re 14th. This is one area the Bolts could some improvement in. Aging powerplay specialist Andreychuk and lightweight goon Dingman are the only two players with a double-digit plus/minus ranking; they’re both –10.

One guy on defense that has not impressed me this year is Pavel Kubina. Despite his team’s marked improvement his numbers have fallen off the coast of Florida. It’s conceivable that he could have a strong flurry to end the year and boost those numbers up, but we’re talking an eastern Canadian winter type of flurry here. Three goals is a huge disappointment from Kubina.

Outlook

The Bolts have a game in hand on Washington and seem to have an easier schedule, although as everyone should know, no game is a certain win for any team in the league.

Tampa:

Home: Minnesota, New Jersey, Florida, Montreal, Philadelphia

Road: Montreal, LA, Phoenix, San Jose, Boston, Atlanta

The home schedule looks much tougher with teams like Minnesota, Jersey, and Philadelphia coming to town. Although it’s no Battle of Alberta, the game against Florida should be spirited and Montreal will be desperate to try sneak into the playoffs.

Same goes for tonight’s game in Montreal. The rest of Tampa’s schedule is against non-playoff teams, with the exception of Boston, who only recently have woken up from their winter hibernation. LA, San Jose, and Phoenix have recently gone through some turnover, so they should be games in which the Bolts stand a pretty good shot at two points.

Washington:

Home: Colorado, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, Florida

Away: Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto

Washington’s home games also look fairly difficult, Well, at least the Colorado and Ottawa games. Any way the Caps can pick up even two points combined from these two games should be considered a victory. And as a Canucks’ fan I hope somebody beats the Avalanche. Might as well be the Caps. Pittsburgh and Florida should be victories for the nation’s capital. The Caps’ chances at the third seed really hinder on their roadtrip, which takes them to every single Canadian NHL team. Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto will all be difficult games for the Caps, as will Edmonton and Montreal, both in playoff races. As usual Calgary’s just winding down the season, but this game will be crucial for the Caps to win to get off to a good start on the road.

My prediction: the Bolts should hold Washington off and win the division and perhaps even meet the Capitals in the first round.

I realize few people are going to comment or care about the Lightning. But after all the bashing I’ve directed towards this team over the years it’s time to give them some long-deserved credit.