In what turned into a rollercoaster of a season for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Stanley Cup Champions finished with a record of 36-17-3. Their 75 points were good for third place in the Central Division, behind the Carolina Hurricanes and the Florida Panthers. With the regular season in the rearview mirror, let’s take a look at some key highlights that defined the Lightning’s championship repeat campaign.
Hot Start to the Shortened Season
The Lightning got off to a tremendous start, recording a 20-6-2 record through the first 28 games. At the halfway point of the season, they found themselves in first place in the league with 42 points. They were fourth in the league in goals for with 101 and seventh-best in goals against with 66.
Moreover, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Ondrej Palat were tied for the team lead with 27 points. In addition, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn had notched 18 points. Not only was the offense humming, but the Lightning were playing well defensively. Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, and Ryan McDonagh put on sturdy performances on the blue line game after game. Like Hedman, Sergachev had found his offensive rhythm, tallying 19 points in 28 games.
Of course, when your netminder is unsolvable, your team is going to find success. Andrei Vasilevskiy certainly made his case for the Vezina Trophy, and maybe even the Hart Trophy, this season. He was especially good throughout February and March. He won 12 straight starts from Feb. 22 to March 25, a franchise record. He has recorded three win streaks of 10 games or more in his career, just the second backstop in NHL history to do so.
As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. The Lightning cooled off in April, a month that they’ll be glad to put behind them as they transition to playoff hockey. They struggled on both sides of the puck, and their star players failed to make an impact. The month was a particularly rough one for Hedman, a rare dip in play for one of the world’s best defensemen. He acknowledged his struggles stating,
“I have to be better. It starts with me.”
Not only did the Lightning find themselves in the middle of the league in goals against, but they also finished 12th in the league in goals for during the month of April. That is not the level of play we have come to expect from one of the most talented rosters in the league. Although Point played fairly well, his linemate Palat struggled mightily to light the lamp. He failed to score a goal in the first 11 games of the month, finally ending his goalless streak on April 22.
It wasn’t just Palat who struggled, though. Yanni Gourde and Alex Killorn each only scored four goals in April. Blake Coleman tallied just five goals. Overall, the Lightning scored more than three goals in just three of their 15 games that month. In contrast, they gave up more than three goals in seven of those games. Although they can certainly learn from the trials and tribulations they went through, it was a month they’ll want to soon forget.
Surviving the Injury Bug
The Lightning haven’t been a healthy team all season, a theme that started in the offseason. In January, Nikita Kucherov underwent hip surgery that kept him out of the regular season. Mitchell Stephens was the next player to go down, ultimately missing the better part of two months of action. Stephens was entering what could have been a breakout season that cemented him in the Lightning lineup. However, the rise of Ross Colton and Alex Barre-Boulet led to Stephens rarely making an appearance even when he became healthy in mid-April. He played just seven games in total this season.
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The Lightning have had major problems defensively this season, and injuries certainly played a role. Defensemen Cernak and Jan Rutta both missed a significant amount of time this season. Their shoes ultimately proved to be too big to fill for Cal Foote, Andreas Borgman, and Luke Schenn. Although they played well at times, the Tampa Bay blue line just never reached the level of play that it did last season.
The injury to Stamkos had a very obvious and detrimental effect on the Lightning late in the season. There is no doubt that the captain brings life to the team, and quite frankly, they looked disoriented without him. Fortunately, Stamkos and Kucherov will reportedly be ready to return for the playoffs.
New Kids In Town
Although the Lightning were plagued with injuries, it provided an opportunity for some of the youngsters within the organization. In particular, Colton and Barre-Boulet shined in their time at the NHL level this season.
Colton made his NHL debut on Feb. 24 against the Hurricanes, a game in which he tallied the game-winning goal. He built upon that success in March, tallying a goal and three assists in eight games. However, the first half of April is when he really shined. He scored six goals in eight games, a pace that was keeping with some of the league’s best. He has cooled off since, recording just one point in the final 13 games of the season. Make no mistake, the 24-year-old forward will bounce back and has a bright future ahead of him.
Unlike Colton, who remained with the team for the majority of the season, Barre-Boulet played in two separate stints with the team. He made his NHL debut on Feb. 22 against the Hurricanes. However, he only made one more appearance before he was sent back down to the Syracuse Crunch on March 12.
Stamkos went down with an injury in April, opening up a spot on the top line. To fill that position, Barre-Boulet returned to the lineup on April 15. It turned out to be a great fit for the creative 23-year-old forward. He found the back of the net for the first time in his NHL career against the Columbus Blue Jackets, his eighth game. He finished the season with three goals in 15 games. His offensive playmaking abilities were on full display at the end of the season, proving he is going to be a force at the top level in the near future.
Sunshine State Showdown
The Lightning did not end the season they would have liked. The month of April certainly did not go as planned, and they won just two of their last five games of the season. While they were a lock for playoff hockey, they conceded home-ice advantage to the Panthers, who they will take on in the first round of the playoffs.
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Will it matter in the end? Probably not much. However, it is important to note that the Lightning were a stronger team at home than they were on the road this season, posting a record of 21-7-0 at home and 15-10-3 away. With about a week before the start of the playoffs, they will look to rest up, get healthy, and prepare for their first-ever playoff series against their Sunshine State rival.
Andrew is a freelance writer who covers the Tampa Bay Lightning at The Hockey Writers. He is a passionate hockey fan who grew up near Tampa, Florida. He is a father to a Golden Retriever and is studying to be a Physician Assistant. Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Mulville