In this post, I’m going to try to put myself into the collective heads of the Tampa Bay Lightning as they enter into the postseason. The Lighting have not had the kind of regular season that fans have come to expect of them. In fact, in some ways, the team has floundered.
The question the Lightning face is if they flip a switch when the playoffs begin. What might it be like to face the Maple Leafs from Tampa Bay’s point of view?
The Lightning’s Current Placement in the Atlantic Division
The Lightning are currently five points behind the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division, and Toronto has two games in hand. With eight games remaining on their schedule, the Lightning would almost have to run the table to have a chance for second place. If the Maple Leafs go 5-4 over its last night games, there’s no chance – regardless of how well Tampa Bay plays – not to have home-ice advantage.
That makes catching the Maple Leafs possible; but, it will be challenging.
Still, the Lightning have been recent Stanley Cup champions and continue to have a depth of talent on their roster. As a result, it’s possible they could “flip a switch” and start playing better down the stretch or in the postseason.
The Lightning’s Job Until the End of the Regular Season
That said, logic would suggest that it would be more important for Tampa Bay to maintain good habits and momentum heading into the playoffs. So it isn’t a good strategy to simply “play out the string” without concern about results. Ultimately, the Lightning must focus on playing well in each game and trying to win as many as possible. At the same time, they’ll work to keep an eye on their player’s health and avoid any unnecessary risks or injuries.
So, how will the Lightning approach these final games? Will they even try to make up ground on the Maple Leafs in the standings?
The fact is that, with the regular season’s placement all but in the record books, it will be a challenge for the Lightning to maintain their focus and intensity during these remaining games. They’ve already clinched a playoff spot and know where they will finish in the standings.
How I Think the Lightning Will Approach the Season’s Wind Down
I believe the Lightning will use their last seven games as a chance to fine-tune their game and work on areas they believe might need improvement before the playoffs start. That means they probably will rest Andrei Vasilevskiy to keep him fresh. However, it also means they’ll try to play disciplined hockey while focusing on their systems.
All the time, coach Jon Cooper will try to keep his players from slipping into complacency or bad habits that might develop over a string of what Tampa Bay would probably consider meaningless games. How does the coaching staff keep the players motivated and engaged? At the same time, how will they manage the team’s ice time and workload to ensure the key players are fresh and ready once the playoffs begin?
In a Seven-Game Series, Momentum Is Crucial
The Lightning know that momentum is a crucial factor in the playoffs. Last season, they were down three games to two and came back to beat these same Maple Leafs. The momentum of that series switched.
The Lightning have been there before and enter the playoffs with confidence they can gain momentum and mount a comeback even from a deficit. That means they’re counting on being able to “flip a switch.” Given their season, they almost have to put faith in their history and playoff abilities.
How Significant Is Home-Ice Advantage?
Part of that history for the Lightning is that they know they can win, even if the Maple Leafs have a home-ice advantage. That’s what happened last season. Tampa Bay realizes the playoffs are a whole new ballgame and that they will start with a clean slate.
Both the Maple Leafs and the Lightning realize that home-ice advantage might not be as significant a deal as it once was. However, having the home-ice advantage can provide a boost and become a factor in any playoff series.
For that reason, the Lightning will certainly work to finish strong and play good hockey heading into the playoffs, regardless of whether they have a home-ice advantage or not.
The Bottom Line Over the Next Few Regular Season Games Is Playing Well
Both the Lightning and the Maple Leafs will likely focus on playing good hockey to get ready for the playoffs. While having the home-ice advantage is important for a team, it might be more important for both teams to enter the postseason with the kind of momentum that comes from being on a winning streak.
In this way, entering the playoffs with confidence and momentum might be more crucial than home ice. These last games can potentially offer either team an edge as they enter the postseason.
As a result, I’m looking for both teams will likely be looking to play their best hockey regardless of where they start the playoffs.