Monday, February 10, 2020

Weekend rankings: Changes in Toronto, questions in Montreal and a new/old team takes over top spot

Screw it, I’m moving the Lightning back into the No. 1 spot.

I’ve been mulling it over for a few weeks now. They started the season in the top spot before yielding it the Bruins, Capitals and Blues. I kept the Lightning in the top five for two months, even as they struggled and plenty of angry readers insisted their team was clearly better. But I could only hold on for so long, and eventually ran out of room for them in December. That lasted for a month before they forced their way back into the top five.

And now, after yet another week of running the table, they’ve made it all the way back to the top.

I can anticipate three main objections here.

Objection No. 1: Hey, what about the Bruins? Let’s start with the toughest one to argue my way out of. The Lightning are surging, having won six straight. But the Bruins had also won six in a row before yesterday’s loss in Detroit. They’re still five points up on the Lightning (who have two games in hand), so the division remains theirs to lose. If we’re going to put an Atlantic team in the top spot, maybe it should be Boston.

That’s a solid case. But it ignores how red hot the Lightning have been for months now. They haven’t just won six straight, they’ve won 18 of 21, dating back to before Christmas. Hot streaks come and go, but this is something more than that. This is an elite team finding their gear. By comparison, the Bruins have won 13 of 21, which is still pretty impressive but has them losing ground.

We’re getting cute with arbitrary endpoints there, but you get the idea. The Lightning are rolling, they have been for a long time, and they’re in every game – you have to go back almost two full months to find a game they lost by more than one goal, not counting empty-netters. And on paper, I just think they’re better than the Bruins, if only slightly. This team didn’t win 62 games last year by accident. When they’re at their best, they’re pretty much unstoppable. And they’ve been at their best for a while now.

Remember, the idea here isn’t to pick who finishes first in the Atlantic. We’re looking for a Cup winner. And even if Tampa does finish second in the division and has to go through Florida or Toronto before facing Boston without home ice, I like their odds. Only one Cup winner in the last six years won their division, so catching Boston isn’t mandatory.

Of course, if we’re talking Cups, we have to address the elephant in the rink …

Objection No. 2: Did you see last year’s playoffs? The Lightning had 62 regular-season wins last year, which was 62 more than they managed in the playoffs. That led to plenty of well-worn stories about how this team isn’t designed to win in the postseason. The Lightning even seemed to be buying into the theory themselves. So why would this year be any different, especially with an even tougher path to the final?

You could argue that the Lightning have changed and that those early-season struggles were a team learning about itself and making the tough changes necessary to win. You could also say that last year was a wakeup call, as a team that had it a little too easy for too long, got cocky and took its eye off the ball. That won’t happen again, because the Lightning learned their lesson.

Maybe. But my answer is that I just don’t buy the narrative. Yes, the playoffs are different than the regular season, but despite what some fans seem to believe, it doesn’t become an entirely different sport. I don’t believe that last year’s Lightning group was somehow fatally flawed, or that they fell victim to some sort of moral failing. Instead, I think they ran into a perfect storm of bad luck and bad timing. Their best defenseman got hurt. Their best player slumped and got suspended. Their goalie went cold. And it all happened against a pretty good team, one that had 98 points, a Vezina winner in net and a bunch of trade deadline reinforcements. It happens.

And it could happen again. The Lightning will face a good team in the first round this year too (and maybe even that same goalie that beat them last time). Key players could get hurt or go cold again. They could lose. If their path to the final goes through Boston and Washington, they probably will lose. That’s life in today’s NHL – every team will probably lose. Nobody’s better than maybe a 20 or 25 percent chance to pull it off. We just have to pick the team with the best chance. Right now, I think that’s the Lightning.

I’m not the only one, which leads to the last objection …

Objection No. 3: What took you so long? Yeah, I’m admittedly not breaking new ground here. It hasn’t exactly been hard to see what was happening in Tampa, and others are ahead of me on declaring them the favorites. Four of us had them ranked first in the most recent power ranking poll, and some of my colleagues never left the bandwagon.

Maybe, more importantly, the oddsmakers have already moved the Lightning into the Cup-favorite spot.

That’s pretty solid evidence that I’m on the right side of this one, but also that I’m late to the party. Given the alternative, I think I’ll take it.

And of course, if the Lighting fall off now and/or flame out in the playoffs yet again, we’ll all agree to forget this ever happened.

On to what’s left of this week’s rankings …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Two wins in twelve games for a team that traded for two veteran offensive stars, one of whom can walk as a UFA in July. That’s, uh, not great.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins (34-15-5, +30 true goals differential*) – They’ve won three of four, with the one loss coming to the same Lightning team they get to face tomorrow night. They’re within four points of the Caps in the Metro, and four points up on the surging Blue Jackets.

4. St. Louis Blues (32-15-9, +20) – They continue to spin their wheels, having won just six of fifteen since New Year’s eve. That includes a pair of recent regulation losses to the Jets that have kept Winnipeg alive in the wild-card race, and Saturday’s OT loss to the Stars, which allowed the Avalanche have closed to three points back with two games in hand. The Central is still probably the Blues’ division to lose, but lately, they seem like a team that might be willing to lose it.

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