The Tampa Bay Lightning enter Thursday’s matchup against the Minnesota Wild just four points behind the New York Islanders for the last wild card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
With a record of 8-2-3 over their last 13 contests and improved play over the past month, is this a team that can earn its fourth straight berth?
The short answer is yes, but it’s an uphill battle for the club and one that could come right down to the wire, depending on how things play out down the stretch with them and other teams in the conference.
Between the Lightning and that last spot right now are the Toronto Maple Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers, who have 72 and 70 points, respectively, through 65 contests. The Islanders have 73 points and have posted five wins in their past eight games. The Lightning play the Maple Leafs at Amalie Arena on March 16 and in Toronto on April 6, but have no other games left against the Flyers or Islanders.
More importantly, however, is that in the Lightning’s 17 remaining games, they play 13 against Eastern Conference opponents, with 11 being Atlantic Division matchups. The Lightning boast an 11-5-3 record in their division and are 21-15-11 against teams in the East at this point in the season. Also working in the team’s favor is that 10 of their 17 games are on home ice, where they are 17-11-3 compared to just 13-15-6 on the road.
The Lightning are playing their best hockey of the year when they absolutely have to have it — making things all the more interesting in the East at this point in the season.
What’s behind the Lightning’s sharp turnaround and how can they keep it up?
Improved Team Defense
One aspect of the Lightning’s game that’s vastly improved is their play on the defensive side of the puck.
The team’s high-speed, puck possession style struggled through most of the season as both forwards and defensemen were unable to complete a smooth transition out of their own end, often resulting in costly turnovers. They also weren’t playing the defensive sort of game that’d been one of the major keys to their success of the past two seasons.
While the team could certainly add another top-end blueliner (What team couldn’t?), they have been aided a bit by the addition of 22-year-old defenseman Jake Dotchin.
Since his debut on Jan. 21, the Ontario native has been a stead presence on the team’s blue line and allowed them to successfully split up Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. This has provided immediate balance on their defense corps, as they can role out three fairly effective pairings — while strengthening their top-4 in the process.
The improvement has also come from the forwards, who are contributing more in their own zone and helping with more seamless transitions into the neutral zone on breakouts. You are seeing this with the speed they have leaving their own end and in entering the offensive zone — aspects of their game that are paying dividends offensively.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has been dominant since taking over the starting role after Ben Bishop was traded to the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 26. The 22-year-old netminder has posted a .956 save percentage and yielded just six goals while posting a 3-0-1 record.
Earlier in the season when Bishop went down with a lower-body injury, Vasilevskiy posted losses in four straight starts from Jan. 3 through Jan. 8 in what was the team’s second four-game losing streak of the season.
While Vasilevskiy wasn’t at the top of his game, the same could be said for the team in front of him which was struggling to score goals and limit scoring opportunities for their opponents.
Fast forward to the present day and Vasilevskiy is playing some of the best hockey of his young career and at a crucial point in the regular season for the Lightning.
Although the team dropped a 1-0 decision to the New York Rangers in overtime on Monday, Vasilevskiy made 33 saves and gave the Lightning a chance to earn two points behind his performance and one of the best collective team efforts at any point of the year.
The Lightning are also benefiting from the offensive output of their top line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
Kucherov, who leads the team with 28 goals and 63 points in 58 games, earned the NHL’s First Star of the Week on March 6 after tallying nine points in four contests. He’s also lead the team in scoring throughout the season in the absence of captain Steven Stamkos and is on pace to reach the 30-goal mark for the second straight year. Johnson and Palat have also contributed offensively, registering a combined eight points in the past five contests.
The Lightning received more balanced scoring across their forward units offensively earlier on in this 13-game stretch, but the Triplets have been their most productive line of late. Also helping this push offensively is Hedman, who has compiled 14 points in this span (including six on the power play).
However, the Lightning will need a more balanced offensive attack across their lines in order to consistently add to the team’s point total in the standings as they close out the regular season.
Outside of the start to the regular season, this is as healthy as the Lightning have been all year — one of the most underrated aspects of the team’s performance throughout the season.
Through most of the regular season, the Lightning struggled with consistency and momentum as there was a revolving door of players going up and down from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, during any given week. While these Crunch players played well in their time at the NHL level, it meant most forwards were playing with different linemates on an almost nightly basis.
The Lightning are now reaping the benefits of playing with an (almost) healthy lineup.
The team is still without Ryan Callahan (lingering hip injury) and Stamkos (recovering from surgery on his right knee) but the team is otherwise playing with as close to a normal roster as they have all year. Sure, character guys like Ben Bishop, Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula were moved at the trade deadline, but the team hasn’t missed a beat on the ice in their absence early on.
Stamkos is skating and was on the ice to start the team’s morning skate on Thursday, although a timetable for his return has not been discussed. Callahan is out indefinitely after undergoing a follow-up procedure in February.
The Lightning face a challenging road ahead in the next two weeks, as the tight standings mean they can’t afford to walk away from very many games without earning points.
After facing the Western Conference leading Wild on Thursday, they play an important divisional matchup against the Florida Panthers on Saturday to end a three-game homestand. The Panthers have just one win in their past seven contests but are right on the heels of their in-state rival in the wild card race and tend to play them well regardless.
From there, the Lightning hit the road for two big games against the Rangers and Ottawa Senators before returning home to Amalie Arena to take on the Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals and Arizona Coyotes. The Lightning will meet the Bruins in Boston on March 23 — a team that’s trying to hold onto third place in the Atlantic Division — to round out the two-week span.
The Lightning will take things the proverbial one game at a time, but the reality is that there aren’t many of them left — making each one all the more important down the stretch.