Tampa Bay Lightning
For Bolts, new era equals new postseason reality
The Southeast Division is no more.
Saturday's season finale between Florida and Tampa Bay marked the end of a 16-year run under the current divisional alignment. And though many liked to tongue-in-cheek refer to the five-team division as the South Least, it did produce a pair of Stanley Cup champions — Tampa Bay in 2004 and Carolina in 2006 — and a powerhouse team in Washington since the first lockout.
And at some point during the divisional alignment, every team made the playoffs at least once and every team captured a division title.
Starting next season, the league will look different with a four-division setup. There will be two divisions in each conference as the Southeast is dissolved and each of the four remaining teams — Winnipeg is moving to the Western Conference — is essentially being absorbed into the other two divisions.
Tampa Bay and Florida will move in with the Northeast Division teams, while Carolina and Washington join the Atlantic.
The divisions will be renamed with an announcement at a later date.
So as Tampa Bay gets set to enter a new era of divisional play, a new reality will set in — making the postseason a more difficult task.
The Lightning, who have missed the postseason five of the past six seasons, will have to face Boston, Toronto, Buffalo, Montreal, Detroit, Ottawa and Florida at least four times a season, with two of those teams showing up on the schedule five times.
And to make the playoffs under the new alignment, the Lightning have to finish in the top three in the division to guarantee a postseason date. Finish fourth and you start to enter wild-card territory, hoping that your point total is higher than the fifth-place team in the opposite division that will have Pittsburgh, New Jersey, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Columbus, Washington and Carolina.
To put that in perspective, of the eight teams in Tampa Bay's new division, five are in the playoffs this season — Ottawa, Boston, Montreal, Toronto and Detroit.
The task is not going to be easy and the Lightning need to find a way to keep the puck out of the net on a more consistent basis if they want to be in that hunt next season.
There is a lot to like about this team moving forward — a lot of offensive talent, what appears to be a good, young tandem in goal with Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback, and a strong pipeline of talent in the system.
On paper, this is a team full of talented players. But talented players do not always translate into a talented team.
Tampa Bay needs to be smarter with the puck, better in its defensive zone and find a way to get out of the defensive zone with a better transition.
There have been some signs of that since Jon Cooper took over as coach and a full summer to study the season, followed by a full training camp, will go a long way to creating some better habits that Cooper would like to see.
But there is a lot of work to get done between now and the start of the season in October. Though Cooper was able to get a bit of a head start, there are a lot of habits to be undone and a lot of new ones Cooper wants to create.
And after the past two years of bitter disappointment coming off a run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2011, the pressure will be on to end the playoff drought.
With the new divisions, the task became tougher to complete.