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CRACKS OF DON: Are the Lightning set up for another collapse?

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy lands on top of Nick Ritchie of the Boston Bruins during Eastern Conference round robin play on Wednesday.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy lands on top of Nick Ritchie of the Boston Bruins during Eastern Conference round robin play on Wednesday.

After last year, how can you trust the Tampa Bay Lightning?

How can you believe they are what they appear to be?

Remember your faith in them after the 2018-19 campaign, when they won the Presidents’ Trophy with a 62-16-4 record for 128 points, or 21 more than the next best regular season team?

In our playoff preview, 22 of 23 well-paid Postmedia prognosticators picked the Bolts to make it to the Stanley Cup final, and 19 of us said they’d bring home the coveted chalice.

Four games later, the Lightning were swept from the opening round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Still, we don’t learn.

This season, the Lightning finished second in the Eastern Conference with a 43-21-6 record, eight points behind the Boston Bruins. But only five of us 18 “experts” have the B’s turning their first place finish into a return trip to the Cup final, with four of us predicting they’ll avenge their Game 7 loss by hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug.

Meanwhile, 12 of the 18 are again taking the Lightning to represent the East in the championship series and eight have them winning the second Cup in their 28 year history.

Very little respect is going to the Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins, each of whom could quite conceivably prove to be the best team in the same conference. Goaltending is the key, more important than ever before. After a five-month pause, even the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, Jackets, Montreal Canadiens and Florida Panthers could have the guy who gets hot at the right time. Same goes for 12 teams in the West.

The point is, never before has the race for the Stanley Cup been so difficult to handicap. Never before has the race been so wide open.

The Lightning did reconfirm themselves as a favourite Wednesday, however, with a late Tyler Johnson goal that gave them a 3-2 victory over the Bruins. Tampa held a 2-0 lead until late in the second period, when the B’s, who were horrible in a 4-1 loss to the Flyers on Sunday, picked up right where they left off in terms of brutality three days earlier.

The Bruins, who looked more their old selves as the day went on, tied the game on goals that Andrei Vasilevskiy should have stopped. It probably didn’t faze his teammates, but it did serve as a reminder to the rest of us that goaltending remains the biggest question mark for the Lightning. While the Conn Smythe Trophy will likely go to the ‘tender for the Cup winning team, Vasilevskiy owns a 17-15 record in post-season play.

How can you trust the Tampa Bay Lightning when you can’t trust their most important player?

STARTS AND STOPS

The round-robin games being played for seeding purposes are really about getting ready for the best-of-sevens. Name a team that others actually “want” to play. There are no dogs still kicking. They’ve been at home since March. Last year, the two wild card teams in the East knocked off the division winners. This season the reward for doing well in the round-robin could be a meeting with the Hurricanes. Who wants that? … In four days, the now 0-2 Bruins have lost their chance to enter the playoffs as top seed, which is something they worked hard for all season. “I think the worst thing that’s going to happen to us is we’re going to lose the locker room in our practice facility,” goalie Tuukka Rask said with a shrug. “You’ve got to beat everybody anyways. Whatever.” … Yeah, yeah, the Lightning overpaid to acquire Blake Coleman from the Devils at the deadline, sending their 2019 first round choice (Nolan Foote) and a conditional first round pick in the 2020 draft for a veteran they needed to fill a third line hole. But Coleman, who can also put the puck in the net, did a good job of getting under the Bruins skin on Wednesday, to the point where the diminutive Torey Krug took him on. Having Coleman take one of the other team’s top players off the ice for five minutes is a trade the Lightning will take every time – and so is acquiring Coleman for a couple of flip-of-the-coin first rounders if his grit helps them avoid another playoff collapse and turns out to be a factor in them getting to the Cup final.

QUICK PASSES

Give me Kevin Bieksa on the Hockey Night In Canada panel every night. He’s funny, he’s insightful and he’s comfortable. He’s a natural. As for Anthony Stewart, well, he’s still got a lot of growing to do … When it came to their playing careers, Bieksa, a fifth round pick, was very much an overachiever. Stewart, a first rounder, was very much an underachiever …. At first I thought it was a disguise and I wondered why Elliotte Friedman felt the need to wear one. His bushy, multi-coloured beard has grown on me – in a manner of speaking …

Love the latest Martin Brodeur commercial, where the Enterprise agent calls the Hall of Fame goalie to let him know he left a cup in the rental. Not one of the those he won during his illustrious career, Brodeur is told, but a coffee cup. “I’ve been looking for that,” he says. Worth noting here, I don’t get out much.

ON THIS (Aug. 6) DATE

Exactly 23 years ago, the expansion Predators hired Barry Trots as their first head coach, a full 14 months before their first game. Trotz, who had spent five season honing his craft in the AHL, has gone on to become one of the best coaches in NHL history. He currently sits fourth on the all-time wins list with 845, just four behind Ken Hitchcock and 80 behind second-place Joel Quenneville, who he’s currently butting heads with in an interesting New York Islanders-Florida Panthers best-of-five that sees his Isles with a precarious 2-1 advantage. Never before has a playoff series been contested between opposing head coaches with more regular season success … Exactly 16 years ago, the Phoenix Coyotes inked free agent Brett Hull, who was three days from his 40th birthday. His career in the desert lasted five games (no goals, one assist) but it did allow Hull to wear the same No. 9 jersey his father Bobby make famous with the Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets, before the latter moved to Phoenix. Like Trotz, Brett Hull is also fourth on a list – fourth most goals scored in NHL history. He’s first on the list of ex-superstars to belt out an hilariously drunken rendition of “Gloria” in celebration of the St. Louis Blues championship win last spring.

CLOSING TIME

The off-ice problems that led to Ottawa giving Mike Hoffman away for basically nothing have not surfaced in Florida, as far as we know. In two seasons with the Panthers, Hoffman has 65 goals and this year was a respectable (for an offensive player) minus-5. In their win-or-go-home game against the Islanders, he scored a big goal with his trademark one-timer that is one of the best in the league, and he was on the ice with when the Islanders had their goalie pulled for an extra attacker trying to tie it up. A guy nobody apparently wanted two summers ago could be a hot commodity when the free agent market place opens up in October … Continuing on with his breakthrough season (22 goals in 68 games) is little (5-foot-10, 165 pounds) Coyotes winger Conor Garland, a fifth round pick (123rd overall) from the Moncton Wildcats in 2015 who did virtually nothing in his first two seasons as a pro in the AHL. The toe drag he made to elude big Mattias Ekholm en route to the game winner was on the filthy side … Remember when the Nashville Predators were a Stanley Cup contender? … Lightning centre Tyler Johnson is sort of the poor man’s Marty St. Louis, isn’t he? Both are 5-foot-8, both were undrafted and both turned into big-time players for Tampa. While St. Louis’ trophy case has eight pieces of individual NHL hardware, Johnson has collected none of the same, but with two point performance (including the winning goal) against the Bruins on Wednesday he passed Vinny Lecavalier for third most playoff goals and fourth most playoff points in Lightning history.

dbrennan@postmedia.com

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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