The Tampa Bay Lightning entered the 2023-24 season looking to prove a point. Tampa Bay had gone to three straight Stanley Cup Finals before the 2023 postseason. However, they suffered a shock defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Now, they have a chance to make up for that first-round exit this year against the Florida Panthers.

Tampa Bay has not played to the dominant level we have seen in the past. The Lightning weren't necessarily bad, perse. It was more that the team wasn't as good as they had shown they could be. Still, Tampa Bay regularly found themselves in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even during their lowest points of the year.

The Lightning have gotten the best of the Panthers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before. In fact, Florida has never eliminated Tampa Bay from the postseason. Tampa Bay certainly hopes to continue this trend in 2024. And they have the skill needed to do just that.

However, the Lightning aren't as bulletproof as they used to be. There is one aspect of their game that could lead to another first-round exit this year. And it's a flaw that their opponent almost specializes in.

The Lightning must fix their defense in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Darren Raddysh (43), defenseman Erik Cernak (81), center Brayden Point (21), defenseman Nick Perbix (48) and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrate after they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs at Amalie Arena.
Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

The Lightning have struggled defensively this season. At best, they are not as sound in their own end as previous teams have been. And the problem lies with some of the team's top players. For instance, Victor Hedman is considered one of the best two-way rearguards in the world. However, his -6.9 defensive goals above replacement is the worst mark on the team and the 13th worst in the NHL.

This trend applies to some of their other forwards, as well. Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Nikia Kucherov have a defensive goals above replacement of -2 or lower. Even one of their more renowned defensive forwards, Anthony Cirelli, has only managed 0.8 defensive goals above replacement.

Of course, the Lightning do have stout defensive players. Darren Raddysh is their best defensive player with a 6.0 defensive goals above replacement. Other defensive leaders include Brandon Hagel, Tyler Motte, and Nick Paul. However, the team as a whole is not all that strong defensively.

At even strength, Tampa Bay can struggle on defense. Their even-strength defensive goals above replacement is just 0.4, right around the middle of the pack. Their penalty kill certainly picks up the slack, with a shorthanded defensive goals above replacement of 9.7. But they need to be defensively sound at even strength against the Panthers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Panthers are not the most offensively inclined team in the league. However, they are rather similar to the Lightning in their offensive approach. Florida finished the regular season with an even-strength offensive goals above replacement of 50.5. Their power play offensive goals above replacement ranked eighth in the league with a 21.5 mark.

These aren't otherworldly numbers by any means. That being said, it's enough of an offensive punch to get the best of the Lightning. Especially considering the Panthers are one of the best defensive teams in the entire league. Tampa Bay has a point to prove, but they need to tighten the hatches in their own end to prove it. If they don't, the Lightning may suffer another early exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2024.