As an analyst, I've struggled with this question over the last year: when do you declare a team's playoff chances dead? Do you wait until they're mathematically eliminated from the playoffs? If you call them out of the race too early, you risk angering fans and being viewed as a Negative Nacy -- even if you're essentially correct. Do you call things as you see them, or do you leave fans hope that their team has better odds than they do?
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been essentially out of the playoff hunt for a couple months now, but they've been able to hang around and give fans hope due to the weak Southeast Division. But GM Steve Yzerman saw through that veiled optimism and saw the Bolts for how they truly are: a rebuilding team with some serious holes on defense and in the net. As such, he's made a number of trades in recent weeks, dealing off free-agents-to-be in exchange for draft picks.
The Bolts weren't a particularly deep team to begin with, and all these trades have left them with little to no depth -- especially on defense. This fact was painfully obvious last night, when the Pittsburgh Penguins ran over the Bolts by a score of 8-1. That was the Bolts' second loss in a row, and they are now eight points out of a playoff spot with a mere 21 games remaining.
That said, the Lightning would surely like a win today in order to stop their skid. They won't have an easy time getting it, though, as the New Jersey Devils are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 74 points. The Lightning have also struggled on the road this season, so with all the variables working against them -- superior opponent, on away ice, and with a depleted roster -- the Bolts will need to play their very best today.
For more on the Lightning, drop by SB Nation's blog on the Bolts, Raw Charge.