Saying that a game is a “must win” when it doesn't involve a team being eliminated is a bit of an overstatement. Kind of like me telling myself that I “must” post something every day. It would be nice, but life goes on with a win or another day without a poorly-edited post about hockey cards. That being said, it would be really, really nice if the Lightning win all three of their next games.
With Saturday's 2-0 shutout of Max Domi's Coyotes the Lightning wrapped up the Western Conference portion of their schedule. From here on out it's all Eastern Conference opponents. Half of those opponents are in the playoff hunt. Ten games left, five are against teams that are currently in the playoffs (if the Devils get hot, then that number moves to 7 and makes the game on April 2nd more important than my return to Amilie Arena).
The first three games are kind of important for the Lightning's playoff positioning (sadly I will be working during all of them – no witty Twitter remarks for you guys!). The Red Wings, Islanders and Panthers are all within four points of the Lightning. Tuesday's game against the Red Wings is the proverbial 4 point game. A win widens the gap to six points while a loss would narrow it to two and bump the Lightning closer to a wild card spot.
Detroit, like most of the Atlantic division, has been mostly treading water lately having gone 5-5 in their last 10 games. They are fighting for their playoff lives as the hard-charging Flyers are only a point behind them with a game in hand. They did the Lightning a favor in their last game by beating the Panthers 5-3 on the 19th.
Tampa Bay has scuffled along over the past week on their four game road trip. They beat two teams they should have in Arizona and Columbus. They lost to one team they should have beat (Toronto) and lost a 50/50 game to Dallas. The Dallas game hurt a bit as the Lightning had a lead going into the third period and were unable to put them away. If they had been able to win in Dallas (or Toronto) they would be sitting in first place (ahead of Florida due to having fewer games played).
At this point the Lightning can't worry about points left behind they have to focus on the 20 points left available to them. It would be a decent time to put another win streak together to bump up their standings. At the very least, picking up the lion's share of points over the next week will vastly improve their chances of having more home games in April.
With the jumble that is the Atlantic Division it's still too early to figure out who is going to play who in the playoffs. Thinking about who would be the the “best” team to play is a bit foolish, best to focus on just clinching a spot at this point. The Lightning have actually been pretty even when it comes to wins on the road and at home. They have 21 wins at home and 20 on the road. Granted they have played three fewer games at home, but it's still a pretty even split.
There is one match-up that I don't want to see. The Lightning versus Boston with the Bruins having home-ice. Boston has been a house of horrors for the Lightning from the 2011 Eastern Conference (Game 7, 1-0 loss) to Steve Stamkos breaking his leg in 2013 to the 10-game regular season losing streak from 2010 to 2015. Boston has had a weird season in the sense that they have a losing record at home (16 wins in 37 games) but have dominated on the road picking up 23wins in 36 games. Still I don't want anything to do with a Game 7 in TD Garden. Stamkos is running out of bones to break in that building.
Another subplot to the end of the season will be how much Coach Cooper plays Ben Bishop. The Lightning have two sets of back-to-back games left. For most of the season Coach Cooper has alternated between Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy for back-to-back games with the youngster getting the start against the weaker of the two opponents (Vasy has not started against a playoff team since the 5-4 overtime win against the Penguins on January 15th)
However, that plan might be thrown out the window since all of the teams in the back-to-back games are in the playoffs. The coach might just ride Bishop in those consecutive games and let Vasilevskiy start against Toronto on the 28th which would give Bishop a four-day rest between games. There is a fine line to play between burning out your MVP (make absolutely no mistake about him being the most important player to the team this year, it's not even close) and putting yourself in the best position to win the Stanley Cup.
Bishop is on pace to play between 62 and 64 games this season which has been his normal workload during his Lightning career. Except for the occasional stick to the face it has been a healthy season for him (knock on wood, cross my fingers). That doesn't mean the coach should run him out there for every game left in the season. Tampa Bay would be flirting with disaster if they played him more than absolutely necessary.
The Lightning only have to look back to 2014 to see what can happen. With four games to go in the season and playoff positioning pretty much decided, Bishop made a save and fell awkwardly injuring his elbow. He missed the rest of the season and the Lightning had to depend on Anders Lindback in their first round match-up against Montreal. It did not go well and Tampa was swept.
|Oh 'Ders, you let in another playoff goal.|
Granted, this season is a little different since there is much to be decided with only 10 games to go. The Lightning could pretty much finish in any spot from 2-8 (no one is catching the Caps for the number one spot) and could technically still miss the playoffs. So riding Bishop for the next week or so makes sense. But should the playoff picture crystallize and spots get locked in, it might not be a bad idea to have him sit out a game or two.
That's a worry for the future. For now Bishop and the Lightning need to focus on the next three games. While they can't clinch the Atlantic with three wins, they can make their lives a lot easier.