Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 01/12/11 at 11:37 AM ET
The question was posed recently in the St. Pete Times and Paul recently brought it to the attention of the KK faithful as well, soliciting some interesting responses but, with first place in the Southeast Division on the line again tonight, with the Washington Capitals (and their identical 55-point total) in town for the first time this season, it deserves some revisiting:
Could the Tampa Bay Lightning truly be a contender for the Stanley Cup this season?
Well, yeah… I suppose anything is possible.
But since the original question was actually, “Is it premature to call the Tampa Bay Lightning a Stanley Cup contender?” then, well…
Yeah. It is.
Technically atop the Southeast, with 25 wins to Washington’s 24, and currently holding down the two seed in the Eastern Conference’s playoff standings, the Bolts do have a lot with which they can be pleased, 43 games into their 82-game slate.
But fast-forwarding 39 regular season games and assuming a post-season berth (likely, yes, though still not certain) as well as the 12 additional playoff wins it would take just to reach the Cup Final in anointing the Bolts a contender to win it all would have to be considered jumping the gun.
No one’s done that, of course – the original article simply asked the question – but what Tampa Bay has done to this point does spark some interesting thought.
Past the half-way point in the regular season, even with the Capitals, they are, without a doubt, a contender for the division crown. I don’t think many people had them in that conversation at the start of the year.
They have, perhaps, the league’s most dynamic scoring duo in Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, whose combined point total of 110 ties Vancouver’s Daniel and Henrik Sedin for the NHL’s top 1-2 punch.
They are outstanding at home at 12-3-2 and have ample opportunity forthcoming to build on that, with a 12-game homestand from January 23rd to February 25th right around the corner.
They have proven to be resilient, battling through lackluster goaltending, injuries and the flip-side of that cushy upcoming home schedule that lasts nearly all of February – a league-high 26 games on the road thus far (with a respectable 13-10-3 record in tow).
And they’d done enough overall, prior to the 41-game mark, for general manager Steve Yzerman to add to the roster, twice now, long before the February 28th trade deadline, first shoring up the goaltending with Dwayne Roloson and, soon after, taking a flyer on an additional power play weapon in defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, who should eventually join the team after playing his way into game shape at AHL Norfolk.
Despite a forgettable outing in Pittsburgh, Roloson’s early returns for the Lightning have been solid – a pair of wins, including a shutout, and far better numbers than their other two goaltending regulars (2.40/.933) albeit a much smaller sampling – and the crease concerns have been the greatest surrounding this team all the while.
With that resolved, making the marginally lofty assumption that Roloson’s numbers pan out over time, there isn’t much that stands out as a major weakness.
True, an argument could be made for a shut-down defenseman as an upgrade over Randy Jones or Mike Lundin and, as the second season approaches, this team – like most others – could potentially add some veteran grit, even in a part-time role for insurance and experience purposes but there really isn’t anything glaring.
Still, we’ve a long way to go.
And, for the second time in a week, the Lightning face a big test in the division rival Capitals.
How the final three meetings with Ovechkin and company go will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Bolts overtake Washington as kings of the Southeast.
And that, once again, is a conversation in which they most certainly play a major role.
As for Stanley Cup potential, it is but January 12th.
Let’s revisit that discussion in early April, shall we?
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