TAMPA, Fla. -- Much like the rumored, still undiscovered Pirate shipwrecks off the Florida keys around here, trying to find a weakness with the Tampa Bay Lightning is a tough task.
I got to see the Lightning in person for the first time this NHL season on Saturday night at Amalie Arena, against one of the other alleged top teams in the league, the Colorado Avalanche, and the game was over before most people even got to their seats.
While the Toronto Maple Leafs are the favorite in Stanley Cup bettingat +550 with 888Sport, I highly advise getting to the nearest betting station and putting some good money down on the +600 Lightning.
“No weaknesses” is what even some longtime hockey watchers, such as NHL Hall of Fame coach and Florida resident Scotty Bowman, were saying about the Lightning up in the press box between periods of the game eventually won by Tampa Bay, 7-1.
This is a team that has won seven games in a row, with a 9-1-0 record in the previous 10, playing without its Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender, Andrei Vasilevsky, for the last weeks because of a broken foot.
There is a buzz around the city about their team; Lightning banners are everywhere. Here are the reasons why NHL betting fans should be flocking to the Lightning right now for long-term plays.
Tampa Bay (24-7-1) scored another six goals in Monday’s 6-3 win over the New York Rangers. They have scored at least five goals in a game 13 times so far, their 128 goals most in the league.
Steven Stamkos, who should make the Hall of Fame someday, has five goals in the last two games. Yet, he’s only the team’s third-leading scorer. Nikita Kucherov (45 points) and Brayden Point (41) have more than Stamkos’ 33.
Then you add in really good forwards such as Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, J.T. Miller, Anthony Cirelli and Ryan Callahan and … it just gets to be an overwhelming amount of depth coming at you at all times. Opponents just can’t keep up with Tampa Bay’s rolling of four lines - four really good lines - over a 60-minute game.
This obviously also makes the Lightning an attractive team to bet the over. Another reason why that’s so right now: While Louis Domingue is a serviceable NHL goaltender, he is not nearly on the level of a Vasilevsky, who still has a few weeks to go before coming back from that broken foot.
The Lightning have all that offense, and they also have the NHL’s best defenseman. That’s not a subjective statement, that’s a fact. Victor Hedman is your reigning Norris Trophy winner, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t win it again.
While his plus-minus is down from last year, his puck-possession numbers (55.5 Corsi for percentage) is the highest of his career. Hedman is just so big (6-6, 225 pounds) and he can really skate. He’s very dangerous offensively as well, giving the Lightning that two-pronged attack every good hockey team needs.
Ryan McDonagh, a former captain of the New York Rangers, is an elite-level D-man. Braydon Coburn is a veteran of 882 NHL games, reliable and smart in his own end. Anton Stralman and Mikhail Sergachev are very good offensive defensemen and good in their own end most of the time, too.
The Lightning D can play a finesse, fast game if you want. But they can clog the neutral zone when they want to, too, and be physical.
You never like to see a top player get seriously hurt. But in this case, that broken foot of Vasilevsky might turn out to have been a blessing in the end. He will be ready and well-rested for the second half of the season.
After playing 65 regular-season games last season, Vasilevsky looked to some observers to be a bit worn out in the playoffs. His saves percentage took a slight dip, and he allowed a few soft goals as the Lightning were eliminated in the Eastern finals.
While a broken foot is a pretty serious injury for a goalie, he’ll have plenty of time to shake the rust off when he returns. The most important thing will be the playoffs, and the young Russian should have plenty of energy.
Besides, with all that offense, he’s not going to have to stand on his head all the time. He probably can give up three or four most nights and still get the W.
Tampa Bay has been a top regular-season team for a few years now. They put up 113 points last season, but lost in a seventh game to Washington in the conference finals. In 2016, they lost a seventh game to Pittsburgh in the Eastern finals. They made the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015, only to lose to Chicago in six games.
So, yeah, while plenty of Bolts fans worry about another playoff choke in the end, this is the best team they’ve had in the last few years. This team has better depth overall and a top goalie who is learning how to win.
Jon Cooper is a very good coach, who still has the command of his players it’s clear. This team really seems to want to get over that last Cup hurdle finally.
Nothing is ever a sure thing. But the Tampa Bay Lightning are looking as close to a sure thing right now as any team in pro sports.
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