In a recent piece that ran on Yahoo! Sports’ Puck Daddy blog, Harrison Mooney points out that the competitiveness of the Southeast Division has upended some expectations in the first half of the NHL season.
“The only thing that’s unfolded as predicted is Tampa Bay occupying the space just below Washington”, writes Mooney. “The fact that Florida and Winnipeg are ahead of both of them, however? That’s nuts.”
Has this topsy-turviness contributed to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s struggles in 2011-12?
The Lightning’s Inter-Division Record in 2011-12
The Lightning can’t be happy with their point total thus far this year, and a .463 point percentage won’t get a team into the post-season.
There is no question that the improved play of both Florida and Winnipeg is putting pressure on the Lightning. Even if they never played the Lightning, these teams can do significant damage to Tampa Bay’s season simply by winning. After all, making the playoffs is a zero-sum game in the NHL.
The competitiveness of the Jets and Panthers — the fact that they’re no longer a source of easy points — has to take its toll.” – Harrison Mooney from Puck Daddy
Mooney argues “the sudden resurgence of the Southeast is something to keep in mind when discussing the subpar first half for both the Bolts and Caps. To be certain, there are other problems with both clubs, but the competitiveness of the Jets and Panthers — the fact that they’re no longer a source of easy points — has to take its toll.”
Of the Bolts’ 40 games played, 10 – a full quarter – have been against Southeast rivals. Considering the improved play of some of these teams, and the importance of hockey’s so-called “four-point games” played between divisional competitors, some might suspect that the dots aren’t set very far apart from one another when diagnosing a struggling team like the Lightning.
But those dots form an unexpected picture once connected.
The Lightning boast a 4-2-2 inter-division record, and .600 point percentage when playing other Southeast teams. A far cry from their lackluster overall record.
Against the most surprising Southeast team, the suddenly ferocious Panthers, the Lightning can point to a chest-thumping 3-1-1 record.
And it’s not as if Tampa’s third-point ratio is out of whack either. They’ve earned two points for losing, while also giving up two third points to Southeast teams.
Looking Back to 2010-11
But if this year’s anemic Bolts’ are getting it done against the Southeast, then surely last year’s edition of the Bolts, they of a 103-point regular season, must have looked like proverbial 800lb gorillas when playing last season’s sad-sack version of the Panthers. Or so one might think.
In 2010-11 the Bolts had an overall point percentage of .628. Pretty sharp.
And their point percentage against the Southeast?
A respectable, but not especially gorilla-like, percentage of .625. And unlike this year’s even third-point ratio, the Lightning handed their divisional rivals six extra points, while only grabbing four for themselves.
Again, the Bolts’ results against the Panthers are perhaps the most surprising component of the record. When facing a Florida team that finished 31 points behind them, the Lightning could only muster a 2-1-3 record, losing twice as often as they won in 2010-11.
What to Expect in the Southeast for the Second Half of 2011-12
So what now?
Much like how Tampa’s unbalanced schedule should be a source of joy for Lightning fans, the fact that 14 of 24 inter-division games remain on the Bolts’ schedule is good news. Thus far, anyway, the Bolts win far more often against even their most improved Southeast cousins than against the rest of the league.
And yet one thing remains the same amidst all this turbulence. Even as many suggested before the season began, the Capitals may be the opponent upon whom the Bolts’ season turns.
While the pre-season discussions debated who would win division title, the reality may be defined as a fight between the two clubs for a eighth-seed playoff berth. Five of the Lightning’s 14 remaining inter-division games will be played against Alex Ovechkin and company, who while seemingly diminished this year, remain dangerous and will become increasingly hungry.
That said, the first half of the NHL season clearly had its fair share of surprises – who knows what the coming months may have in store for the Lightning and the rest of the league.