(Photo via @TBLightning)
By Jake Ricker
With their OT win over the Anaheim Duck on Thursday, The Tampa Bay Lightning officially clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth year in a row, a franchise record. So with the playoffs right around the corner, let's take a look at some of the potential matchups the Lightning could have in the first round as they get set to try and look to make history.
It's important to remember that the Eastern conference is still very close, and a lot can change in the standings over the next few games. As of April 16th, the Lightning are third in the Atlantic division and would play the Toronto Maple Leafs. Once the playoff matchups are set, be sure to check back for a more in-depth analysis on the Lightning's first round matchup.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Games left: 8
Second in the Atlantic
The Leafs are one of the top teams in the league and are closing in on their franchise record for points in a season (105, 2018-19). They've gotten significant offensive contributions for stars Austin Matthews and Mitch Marner, both of whom have eclipsed 90 points on the season already. As of April 16th, the Leafs are second in the Atlantic division and would be set to play the Lightning in the first round, which is a playoff matchup we've never seen before.
There have been three games between the Lightning and the Leafs so far this season, with the Leafs leading the series 2-1. They have one game remaining at Amalie Arena on April 21st. While the Leafs have not won a first-round matchup in a while, they will be looking to end that streak.
Games left: 8
1st Wild Card Spot
Currently, the Bruins would be playing the Carolina Hurricanes; in order for the Lightning to play Boston, they would have to move into third or second place in the Atlantic, with the Lightning occupying the other spot. The Bruins currently trail the Lightning by one point and the Leafs by five, so it is becoming unlikely they will face off.
The Bruins have gotten hot at the right time, having won seven of their last ten games. The Bruins have played the Lighting four times this season, with the Bruins winning three of the four matchups. However, it's a different story when it comes to the postseason, as the Lighting have won two of the three playoff series against the Bruins.
If the Bruins are able to keep up their streak, it would not be a surprise to see them rise through the Atlantic and possibly face the Lightning in the first round. While not the best team on this list, they are not to be underestimated.
Games left: 7
1st in the Metropolitan
The Hurricanes are having an excellent season, and they currently sit atop the Metropolitan division. The Lighting have battled the Hurricanes three times this season, with Carolina winning two of them. Each of the three games ended in one-goal games, with two of them having to go to overtime. There is no question the Lightning and Hurricanes are two evenly matched teams, and a seven-game series would be an entertaining one.
With the Hurricanes in first place in the Metropolitan, the Lightning would have to fall to the 1st wild card spot in order to play them (assuming the Rangers don't pass the Hurricanes in the Metro). While it is more likely for the Lightning to face the Hurricanes in the third round, it is definitely a possibility if the Lightning are unable to have a strong finish.
New York Rangers
Games left: 7
2nd in the Metropolitan
The Rangers have completed their rebuild and are ready to take the next step forward in now trying to compete for a Stanley Cup. The Rangers' success has largely come from their goaltender, Igor Shesterkin, who is having a Vezina caliber season. New York is also filled with supreme offensive talent, starting with Chris Kreider, who hit 50 goals for the first time in his career.
The Rangers have had a lot of success against the Lightning, sweeping them in the regular-season series. Two of the games were one-goal games, with one being decided in a shootout, so while the Rangers have always gotten the upper hand, the games came down to the wire. Hopefully the Lightning see this as a Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs New Orleans Saints situation, where the Bucs struggled against the Saints in the regular season but sent them packing in the playoffs.
In order for these two teams to face off in the first round, the Rangers will have to pass the Hurricanes, who they are only two points behind, and the Lightning would have to fall to the first wild card spot. So while not impossible, it Is still unlikely.
Games left: 9
1st in The Atlantic
The Panthers have had their best season in franchise history, and they even have their eye on the Presidents' Trophy. The Panther's high-level goaltending, goal scoring, and rough-edged defense have put them atop of the NHL, and they made sure to do everything they can to stay there after acquiring F Claude Giroux at the trade deadline.
Despite all the success for the Panthers, the Lightning have actually faired well against their in-state rival. The Panthers lead the season series 2-1, but in one of the games, the Lightning were without both of their goaltenders and multiple other starters due to COVID-19. The two teams have one more game remaining in Sunrise on April 24th.
NHL fans had their eye glued to the six-game series between these two teams in last year's playoffs, and surely another matchup between these two would not disappoint. In order for these two teams to face off, the Lightning would have to fall to the second wild-card spot, or the Panthers would have to be passed by the Leafs. Both of these scenarios are unlikely, but if both the Lightning and Panthers win their first-round matchups, then we will get to see the battle of the sunshine state once again in the second round.
A lot can change over the next few weeks as the NHL season comes to a close, and the Lighting could be playing almost anyone from the East. Let us know who you would like to play in the first round in the comments down below. There is no doubt that we will have a lot of fun first-round matchups in the Eastern conference, no matter where these two teams end up. Now it's time to sit back and relax as we wait to see who the Lighting will take one as they look to three-peat.
Want to start your journalism career by writing about the Tampa Bay Lightning? Send us a message via our contact form located in the upper right hand corner under the more tab or send us a message via Twitter to get started.