by Ian Cunningham
The Tampa Bay Lightning recorded a record of 6-7 in the month of November, dropping three spots to eleventh in the fifteen team Eastern Conference. In the process, Tampa surrendered eleven of a possible eighteen points available to Eastern Conference opponents, including six points to three teams that were below the Bolts in the standings at the time – Carolina, Winnipeg, and New Jersey. The latter now sits tenth in the East with 25 points, one more than the Bolts’ 24.
These six points left on the table versus the above mentioned clubs represent the difference separating the Lightning from division-leading Florida, who tops the Southeast with 30 points. A feel good story for all involved in south Florida, the early success of the Panthers has made things a little more complicated for their State rivals.
Entering the 2011-2012 NHL season, it was widely assumed that the Panthers would not be a factor in the battle for the Southeast. The Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay would battle for supremacy while Carolina would make a valiant push for the post season. Florida and the Winnipeg Jets would not be in the race. However, with the NHL season over 25% in the books, the Panthers are the only Southeastern team residing in a playoff position. On the surface, one might assume that a weaker division could make Tampa’s push to the playoffs that much easier, but you know what they say about assumptions. The Eastern Conference is tighter than it has ever been in the post-lockout era, and if the quarter-mark of the season is any indication, there may only be one team representing the Southeast in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
With the firing of coaches in Carolina and Washington, the Bolts now have two division foes where the onus has shifted to the players. With Paul Maurice and Bruce Boudreau shown the door Monday (congrats to Bruce for finding work so quickly), the players on those two clubs know that if they don’t achieve some sort of success it will be their necks on the chopping block. In Winnipeg, the Jets are just beginning to gel in their new surroundings, and are gathering points at a steady pace since sitting in the Eastern Conference basement on October 27th. The emergence of Evander Kane as a top line power forward has made the Jets a very difficult team to play against, especially in the friendly confines of the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, where the fans seem to give their players that extra step.
The Bolts have played five games versus division leading Florida, going 3-1-1 and will capture the majority of points available to them in the season series. How Tampa performs the rest of the way versus the Caps, Canes, and Jets will go a long way in determining their seeding in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference standings. The Bolts have played ten games versus Southeast opponents (five versus Florida), with fourteen remaining the rest of the way. Not only does that represent a total of 28 points that the Lightning can acquire, but it also represents that many that Tampa can take away in the fight for the division crown.
Presently, the Bolts are 5-3-2 versus the Southeast, which is a very respectable record, sitting two games above .500. But the standings depend on more than the points you pick up. The Lightning acquired twelve points versus division opponents thus far, but surrendered thirteen points, due to earning three of their five wins in extra time. The three point game has made it hard to gain ground on opponents in the standings, as so many games seem destined for overtime with the parity in today’s game. In order for the Bolts to leapfrog a couple teams in the standings, they have to avoid the dreaded three point game. Which has led to the Bolts surrendering more points than they have acquired, despite being above .500.
With six games in December versus teams directly above them in the East, the Bolts will have an opportunity to gain some ground and get back into the playoff picture. With the standings as tight as they are, the Bolts would be best served to stay in contention come the holidays. Otherwise it could be a long stretch drive for Tampa in 2012.