Feature photo courtesy of Leach44.
Last June, visions of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s future were littered with Stanley Cups won by a stacked young core. Many argued that no team was better positioned for an extended period of championship contention and that the Lightning were a dynasty in the making.
With that said, it can be argued that the Lightning were among the most underwhelming teams of the first half of the NHL season. Through 38 games, they stood at a meager 18-16-4 with 40 points, good for only sixth place in the Atlantic Division and 11th in the Eastern Conference. The only teams in the conference they sat atop were the Flyers, Hurricanes, Sabres, Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets, a who’s who of lottery winner hopefuls.
Teams generally try to avoid blaming poor play on injuries, and the Lightning likely aren’t different in that regard. However, the last seven games have served as a good indicator that the medical report has had a substantial impact on their season.
The first half should be viewed using checkpoints of when Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have been in the lineup. On Nov. 7, Tampa Bay was third in the Atlantic. That would be the last day in which Johnson and Palat would play together for more than a month. After Palat missed most of November and Johnson missed a couple of weeks, the Lightning were sixth in their division on Dec. 10, when they would next take the ice at the same time.
After reaggravating their original injuries, the pair missed another few weeks. Jan. 2 would be the next time both Johnson and Palat were in the lineup.
Since the duo’s January return, and perhaps not coincidentally, the Lightning have gone 6-1-0, climbing back up to third in the Atlantic and trailing Detroit by just two points.
However, in those last seven games, Johnson has only a goal and two assists and Palat has a goal and three assists. Meanwhile, Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Valtteri Filppula all have seven points or more over the same time span. It could be merely a random hot streak for a Lightning team that’s been mostly average offensively this season.
Or, more likely, the presence of potent offensive threats in Johnson and Palat has opened up space for teammates. Johnson and Palat had 72 and 63 points respectively last year; opposing teams must keep an eye on them when they’re on the ice, even if they haven’t been as dominant this season.
With Johnson and Palat back in the lineup, Tampa Bay has been pitching in 3.14 goals per game since Jan. 2. Before that, they were scoring 2.55 per game. I don’t believe that to be an accident.
Losing Johnson and Palat might have been somewhat of a blessing for the Lightning, because it forced them to play more defensive-oriented hockey. They were first in scoring and 11th in goals allowed last season, but in 2015-16, the roles have reversed, shifting to 13th in scoring and sixth in goal prevention. They’re also seventh in shots allowed per game and eighth in Corsi-for percentage, pointing to sustainable success on the defensive end.
Ben Bishop has been spectacular in net, with his 1.97 goals against average trailing only Anaheim’s John Gibson and his 1.90 mark. For what’s it’s worth, Gibson has played half as many games as Bishop. The Lightning goalie also has a .927 save percentage, ninth-best in the NHL.
Of course, it helps that Bishop is supported by Hedman and Anton Stralman, who are both in the league’s top 20 in defensive point shares. Hedman is seventh in the league in shot attempt differential while he’s on the ice, putting him back into the Norris Trophy conversation as one of the league’s best defensemen.
As we pointed out last week while talking about the Washington Capitals, the old adage of “defense wins championships” has been ringing true in the NHL for the last six seasons. Every one of the last six winners placed in the top five in fewest goals allowed. The Lightning are currently sixth, but that’s an improvement of last season, so they are getting closer to being championship ready.
Johnson and Palat could have used a break anyway after that long postseason run that ended in the Stanley Cup Final. Coming into the second half of the year, they’ve got fresh legs and are ready to whip the Lightning back into the form they showed in 2014-15. As teams like the Bruins, the Carey Price-less Canadiens and possibly the Panthers, begin to fade in the standings, the Lightning will strike once again.
Three stars of the week
Anze Kopitar, C, Los Angeles Kings: He earned two goals, seven points and most importantly, a brand new eight-year, $80 million contract this week, making him the third-highest paid player in the league.
Sam Bennett, C, Calgary Flames: A four goal game automatically gets you a star of the week, I’m deciding that right now. He contributed two more goals this week as well.
Corey Crawford, G, Chicago Blackhawks: Three wins in three games, 107 saves on 112 shots (.955 save percentage) and a 1.67 goals against average. Maybe the opponents weren’t that impressive (the Canadiens twice and the Maple Leafs), but Crawford (26-10-2, .929 SV% and 2.17 GAA) is having a stellar season and has stolen a fair share of games for the Blackhawks.
Tidbits from around the league
- John Scott likely won’t be an All Star after all. He was traded by the Coyotes to the Canadiens and then sent to the AHL in a move that reeks of interference by Gary Bettman to protect some perception of integrity he has about a 3-on-3 All Star Game that nobody cares about. No, Scott doesn’t belong in the game based on talent. Yes, fans were definitely trolling the league by voting him in and didn’t actually think he was worthy. It doesn’t matter. The league should let him play, because it made a stupid rule allowing fans to pick captains and didn’t account for them to have fun with it.
All Star Games in general need to figure out what their purpose is. Are they being held for the fans? If so, whomever the fans elect should be allowed to play, even if they want nine Kansas City Royals on the field. Home advantage in the championship round is not tied to the NHL All Star Game–nothing is tied to it–so what’s the harm of letting Scott plod around the ice?
- Imagine if Dikembe Mutombo ever blocked a shot into the opposing team’s basket. Jean Gabriel Pageau pulled off the hockey equivalent of that scenario, blocking Jake Muzzin’s pass attempt straight back through Jonathan Quick’s five hole to tie the game.
Games of the week:
Last week: Penguins 4, Lightning 5 (OT): Vladislav Namestnikov caps a hat trick with an overtime winner. Doesn’t get much better than that.
This week: Stars @ Kings (Tues. 10:30): The Stars are struggling right now, and this game against the Pacific’s best will give us a chance to see if they can compete with Cup contenders.
Blackhawks @ Lightning (Thurs. 7:30): Stanley Cup rematch with both teams playing their best hockey of the year. The Blackhawks have won a franchise-record 11 in a row, and the Bolts are sitting on five consecutive. This might be the matchup of the year so far.
Penguins @ Capitals (Sun. 1:30): Sneak this game in before football starts. Crosby vs. Ovechkin is always fun, and the Capitals are better than ever.