Path to Being a Cup Contender (7 pm MT, SNW)

The road to becoming a legit Stanley Cup contender isn’t smooth, and usually, it is filled with disappointment and the odd pothole.

Steven Stamkos, the first overall pick in 2008, missed the playoffs in four of his first five seasons with Tampa Bay, finishing 29th, 25th, 8th, 28th and 21st. In his sixth season, they finished eighth overall, but lost in the first round. The next year they lost the Stanley Cup Final to Chicago in 2015. They made it to the Eastern Conference Final in 2016, and many felt the Lightning were a legit contender.

They missed the playoffs in 2017.

They were back in the conference final in 2018.

In 2019 they led the league with 62 wins and 128 points, one of the best regular seasons in NHL history, then got swept in four games to Columbus.

They rebounded with Stanley Cup wins in 2020 and 2021 and lost the Final in 2022.

Stamkos won a cup in his twelfth season, but he also missed the playoffs five times, and lost in the first round twice, before winning the cup. And in 2020 he was injured and only played a total of three minutes in the playoffs. He didn’t get to experience a Cup win, and be a regular contributor, until 2021.

Today, the Lightning are the gold standard in the NHL, with three consecutive trips to the Final, but getting there wasn’t smooth. Missing the playoffs in 2017, and then getting swept in 2019 were tough pills to swallow, but Stamkos and his teammates became better because of it. He scored his 500th career goal last night. And added two more to sit 45th all-time in goals.

Connor McDavid would love a career with two Stanley Cup wins, and the question many have is: Are the Oilers a legit Cup contender in McDavid’s 8th season?

They were swept in the final conference last year. They got close, but not close enough, and after a slow start to this season many questioned how good they are. The Oilers have found some consistency in their play, mainly improving their defensive play at 5×5, and while tonight is only one game, it presents a great opportunity to measure themselves against the league’s best franchise over the past 3.5 seasons.

The Lightning win more than anyone else — by a significant margin. With 207 wins, they have 30 more regular season and playoff wins than every team except Colorado (191). When you look at their core group, it isn’t surprising they win so much with an elite goalie with Andrei Vasilevskiy, a #1 defender in Victor Hedman and three elite forwards with Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Stamkos. They have all the bases covered.

A victory tonight over the Bolts won’t project the Oilers as a Cup favourite, but I do think they are a legit contender in the west, and tonight will be a good test to see how they match up against a dominant team that knows how to win.

The Oilers were expected to defeat Anaheim and San Jose. They did so in a convincing fashion. Wins over Vegas and Seattle were more impressive as they are better teams and the Oilers limited their opportunities, and tonight is an even better opponent.

Can the Oilers continue their recent stifling defensive play 5×5 vs. a talented Lightning roster? If they do, it should give them the belief that they can compete. If not, it will be an opportunity to learn.

After tonight the Oilers have eight consecutive games against bottom-10 teams in the league. Those will be games they should win, although no team wins all their games against bottom feeders. But before them, the Oilers faced the best team in the NHL over the past 1,000 days.

This morning the players were excited about the challenge.

“They have been the pinnacle of the league for as long as I can remember,” said Jack Campbell.

“You have to be smart with the puck and very strong positionally or they will take advantage of you,” said Warren Foegele.

Campbell and Foegele saw the Lighting more often when they played in Toronto and Carolina respectively, and they know what they are capable of. You have to limit their seam passes. Their middle guys (on the PP) is so good, and they are great at setting up chances on either side. It will be a great test for us,” added Foegele regarding Lighting’s second-ranked PP.

Campbell was quick to add his team is pretty good as well right now. “We are playing as a unit and we are connected with all the forwards and defense.”

Campbell is 5-0 in his last five starts with a stellar .922Sv% and 2.00 GAA. “I’ve just settled in and got my confidence and swagger back. I just want to keep it going,” he said.

What has he done different to turn his season around after a tough start?

“I tend to do too much and I think that got the best of me earlier in the year,” Campbell said.

He also addressed the glove change last game after allowing the second goal. I only had the one glove. I got the new gear in, but after the goal I made the change to the new one. I think we have fixed the problem.”

Campbell has looked much better, and he’ll need to continue that against a very dangerous Lightning team. But the Oilers are also dangerously offensive. Their 5×5 scoring has really improved since Christmas, and tonight should be a very entertaining game.

Oilers

Draisaitl – McDavid – Hyman
Kostin – RNH – Janmark
Kane – McLeod – Foegele
Holloway – Ryan

Nurse-Ceci
Kulak-Barrie
Broberg-Bouchard
Desharnais

2022 Colorado Avalanche: Mikko Rantanen (92), Nathan MacKinnon (88), Nazem Kadri (87) and Cale Makar (86).
2006 Detroit Red Wings: Pavel Datsyuk (87), Henrik Zetterberg (85), Brendan Shanahan (81) and Nicklas Lidstrom (80)
2001 Pittsburgh Penguins: Jaromir Jagr (121), Martin Straka and Alex Kovalev (95) and Robert Lang (80).

Lightning…

Hagel – Point – Kucherov
Cirelli – Stamkos – Killorn
Colton – Paul – Maroon
Namestnikov – Bellemare – Perry

Hedman-Bogosian
Cole-Cernak
Sergachev – Foote

Vasilevskiy

The Lighting rested Vasilevskiy last night in Vancouver so he could go tonight v. the Oilers.

GAME DAY PREDICTIONFans are treated to an exciting, high-skilled game. Edmonton continues to roll with a 4-3 win.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Both teams score a power play goal.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Foegele scores in consecutive games and picks up his second career goal v. Tampa.

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