The time is now for the Tampa Bay Lightning. After reaching the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and getting knocked out in the Eastern Conference finals last season, this is now a battle-tested unit still at the peak of its powers. Oddsmakers seem to agree. At 10-1, the Lightning are the co-second choice to win the Stanley Cup.
Tampa Bay finished the 2015-16 regular season with 97 points (46-31-5), which earned a No. 2 seed as the Atlantic Division runner-up for the playoffs. After easily dispatching of the Red Wings and Islanders, each in five games, the Lightning lost the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins.
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With five 40-point scorers a season ago-all of whom are returning-this team boasts plenty of firepower. But it was the improved effort on the defensive end that bodes well for 2016-17. Lynchpin defenseman Victor Hedman (10 G, 47 Pts) and Vezina Award finalist GK Ben Bishop spearhead a unit that allowed the fifth-fewest goals in the league a season ago (2.41 GAA).
2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning NHL Outlook
Everything is in place for the Lightning to finally get their Cup. Stamkos, already one of the sport's true offensive stars, is just now entering his age 26 season and could have a monster year. Linemate Nikita Kucherov, just 23, had 30 goals last season and led the team in points (68); Hedman is a top defenseman with real scoring ability (10 G, 47 Pts), and the goaltending combination of Bishop (35-21-4, 2.06 GAA) and 2012 first-rounder Andrei Vasilevskiy (11-10-0, 2.76) is as good as any in hockey.
The one area of concern for the Lightning entering this season is the power play unit. Despite the abundance of offensive skill, the Lightning fell from a middling power play team all the way down to No. 26 last year with just a 15.8 percent conversion rate. That will certainly need to improve if the Lightning are to reach their ultimate goal.
Other than that, this team seems ready to go.
2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning Schedule
It's a friendly start to the season for the Lightning as they open with four straight home games. The Red Wings come to town opening night (Oct. 13) followed by the Devils Panthers and Avalanche.
2016-17 Tampa Bay Lightning Future Odds
The Lightning are +1000 to win the Stanley Cup. That's behind only the favored Blackhawks (+750) and is tied with the Penguins and Capitals. Tampa Bay is +550 to win the Eastern Conference and the heavy +130 favorite to win the Atlantic Division.
Tampa Bay Lightning 2016-17 Predictions
As noted, it's all systems go in Tampa Bay. It isn't often you see a team in the NHL go directly from hotshot upstart to a Stanley Cup championship. Often teams first must lose to know how to win. Think Jordan's Bulls and finally slaying the "Bad Boy" Pistons after years of frustration. That's where the Lightning stand entering the 2016-17 season. This is now a veteran group with leadership, skill and playoff experience to draw from. A fully healthy Stamkos should be a big boost, and talk out of Tampa Bay is second-line RW Jonathan Drouin-who excelled in the playoffs-could be set for a breakout performance.
While the Lightning slipped from 108 points in the 2014-2015 season to 97 points last season, a big part of that was the at times unavailability of Stamkos. That's not expected to be a concern this year. Look for the Lightning to surge past 100 points in the regular season and make another deep run in the playoffs.
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