Before the 2019-20 season began, the Tampa Bay Lightning were the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. They were one of the best teams in regular-season history last season, but after having been swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, questions surrounding the team swirled throughout the offseason.
After their first five games of this season, a lot of those questions have yet to be answered. Their 2-2-1 start so far has been underwhelming to many in the league as the team as a whole has yet to catch fire. Sure, they showed a flash of their old self in their 7-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, but after being outclassed by the Ottawa Senators Saturday night, the Bolts have to make some serious adjustments.
McElhinney Coming Up Big
After having a career year with the Carolina Hurricanes last season, Curtis McElhinney signed a two-year contract with the Lightning. So far this season, he’s 0-1-1 with a 3.50 goals against average (GAA) and .909 save percentage (SV%), and while those aren’t stellar numbers, he hasn’t gotten much help in front of him.
Against the Hurricanes on Sunday, Oct. 6, the Lightning were extremely lucky to get even one point, and it was all due to McElhinney’s play. The Hurricanes outshot the Lightning 40-13, won 57% of faceoffs and were 2 for 5 on the power play. If you’re giving up those kinds of numbers, your goalie is going to have to stand on his head, shoulders, knees and toes to make some saves, and that’s what McElhinney has done thus far.
Sergachev’s Scoring Surge
After last season, Mikhail Sergachev showed that he might be ready for top-four minutes in the NHL, and if the first five games are any indication, there’s no question now. He’s currently tied for the team lead with six points — all assists — and playing on the top pair with Victor Hedman. Two of those points came on the power play and he’s a team-best plus-five.
Sergachev scored 40 points in his rookie campaign and 32 points last season, and it took him until his 16th game last season to get his fifth point. He has always had tremendous potential, but as a 21-year-old in his third year in the NHL, he finally appears to be running with his opportunity on the top defensive pair.
Top Line Looks Strong
Brayden Point returned to the lineup Thursday night in the Lightning’s 7-3 win over the Maple Leafs, and he had an immediate impact. Centering Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Point had two goals and an assist while setting the pace for the game. Stamkos had a goal and three assists and Kucherov added two goals and two assists, as well.
If this is the line the Lightning want to stick with, it’s undoubtedly one of the top trios in the league. Kucherov is coming off a historic season, Stamkos is one of the best pure goalscorers in the NHL and Point established himself as one of the bright, young two-way forwards in today’s game. When they’re on, it’s going to be tough to stop them.
5-on-5 Play Has Been Poor
In their first loss this season to the Florida Panthers, the Lightning got into penalty trouble. However, in their overtime loss against the Hurricanes and their most recent loss against the Senators, they were simply outplayed at even strength. In both of those games combined, they were outshot 78-34 and seemed to concede shots to create offensive chances. But, those chances were quickly extinguished as the Lightning were either sloppy in their own zone or failed to connect on stretch passes.
According to Hockey Reference, at five-on-five, the Lightning’s combined SV% is .926, or 26 points better than the league average. McElhinney and Andrei Vasilevskiy have bailed them out, especially considering the team has given up 178 scoring chances against compared to the 133 scoring chances for. They have also given up 70 high-danger scoring chances at even strength — 18 more than the league average. However, due to their goaltending, only five of those chances have led to goals.
It was true last season that the Lightning gave up a lot of shots, but many of them were from the blue line or near the wall. This year, opponents seem to be able to get to the slot and the front of the net much easier. After the All-Star break last season, they only lost eight games, partly due to their stout defensive play. The Bolts need to channel that energy and play a much better shut-down, defensive-minded game.
Defensive Zone Turnovers
One of the reasons the Lightning were so good in the regular season in 2018-19 was because they made swift exits from their own zone and entries into the offensive zone. However, they were bounced from the playoffs in four games because the Blue Jackets hounded the puck carrier and didn’t allow the Lightning to get any space with the puck. In their losses last week — specifically to the Hurricanes and Senators — this was a big issue.
Early in the first period against the Senators, Kevin Shattenkirk went into the corner to retrieve a puck and was trailed by a Senators forward, and Braydon Coburn was behind him. Shattenkirk tried to chip the puck up the near side, but it was knocked down and got past another Lightning player in the faceoff dot. The Senators got a grade-A scoring chance from the slot and maintained possession for about 30 seconds after creating five or six turnovers. This was a common occurrence in the game and happened because the Lightning weren’t careful in their own zone. But, credit goes to the Senators for forechecking and playing a well-structured game.
The bottom line for the Lightning — or any NHL team — is that it’s nearly impossible to win when you turn the puck over in your defensive zone. Players got out of position, and when the opposition doesn’t score, it makes it harder to generate an offensive rush.
Penalties and Penalty Kill
The Lightning are once again having penalty trouble, something that has been an issue in the past. They had the best power play in the league last season at just over 28%, but they also had the best penalty-killing unit in the league at just over 85%. Last season, they could take penalties and have confidence killing them off. This season, not so much.
Through their first five games, the Lightning have taken at least two penalties in each game, including three games with three or more. They spend a lot of time shorthanded, and opponents are 5 for 18 (just under 28%) against the Bolts this season. So far, opponents are scoring almost twice as much on the power play this season against the Lightning, and that’s a problem.
How do they fix it? Well, they can do two things. First, don’t take as many penalties. I know, easier said that done, but if they play better positionally and make smarter, simpler decisions, the number of penalties they take will decrease. Second, they can try different combinations and strategies on the kill. Against the Panthers, specifically, they spent a lot of time chasing the puck and found themselves out of position quite often. If they can stay in good position and get sticks in the passing lane, they shouldn’t be chasing as much in their own zone, which will significantly help their penalty kill.
In general, the Lightning simply need to be more consistent. When they’re at their best, they dictate the pace of the game and force their opponents to play fast — usually faster than they’re accustomed to. But, through much of the first five games, the Lightning sat back and let their opponents come to them rather than attacking more often than not.
There were some bright spots to the week, but looking at the bigger picture, the Lightning did not meet expectations to start the season. Stamkos had some choice words after their loss to the Hurricanes and that lit a fire under the team, so it will be interesting to see how the Bolts bounce back on Tuesday, Oct. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens.