Well, there’s really no way to sugarcoat it, April was a bit of a struggle for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts started it off in first place but now find themselves in a dogfight to get home-ice advantage in the first round. Tampa sits third, behind the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, each of whom split the two-game sets they had with the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Counting overtime losses, the Lightning have 16 on the season. Eleven of those losses have come in the last two months with five more L’s in April. Nonetheless, things do seem to be turning around, as the Bolts ended this month on a hot streak winning four in a row. Going into the playoffs feeling good about themselves will be key, especially if they have to beat both the Panthers and Hurricanes in successive playoff rounds. Even with a fairly rocky road traversed by the team this month, three players stood out as top performers.
Third Star: Ondrej Palat
Somewhat quietly and under the radar, Palat has surpassed almost everyone on the team in scoring. Surprising, I know! At the end of April, he is one point above Victor Hedman with 45, and just a single point off the team lead behind, well, Brayden Point, of course. He has scored 15 goals and chipped in 30 helpers, which are indeed solid numbers, but that doesn’t quite describe how important he’s been lately.
Everyone knew the Lightning would be a little offensively challenged when it was announced that all-world forward Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire regular season. You just can’t lose a player of that caliber and not miss a beat, sputters and dry spells concerning the goal-scoring were expected here and there. Then another superstar-level player went down in Steven Stamkos. Maybe you’ve heard of him since he’s been the captain of the Bolts since 2014 and the most prolific goal scorer in franchise history.
All kidding aside, these are massive losses that most teams couldn’t dream of dealing with nearly as well as the Lightning have. So why have they been different? It’s because of players like Palat stepping up to fill the void. He has not only been steady all year in terms of point production but has gotten the team going during various stagnant offensive stretches throughout the year. When other players have tried to go the fancy route to get a goal, Palat goes right to the net. In April, he had 14 big points in 15 games, and every one of them was vital to the team staying close to the Central division leaders.
Second Star: Brayden Point
At 25 years old, Point is just scratching the surface of his talent at this stage in his career. He leads the team in goals, assists, and overall points, and like Palat, has really come through offensively when the team needed it most. Point had nine goals in April to go with seven assists for 16 points in 15 games. And unlike many other key players on the team, he didn’t miss a game.
In his first season as the team’s top-line center, Point has shown he is well on his way to being an offensive cornerstone for the Lightning for years to come. Earlier in the year, he was lighting it up, and the team was in first place due in large part to his point production. As the season has worn on, teams have adjusted. The Bolts top line has seen far more top defensive pairings teamed with the other team’s top checking line.
When other teams have gone head-to-head, matching top line against top line, the Lightning have usually won that battle. Point has been able to score on whoever he’s been matched up against, especially in April. Not even numerous injury-induced line shuffles have been able to slow the top line down. Great players step up when the team looks the most vulnerable. Whenever Tampa was struggling this month, he played some of his best hockey in a Bolt uniform.
First Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Let’s be honest here, Vasilevskiy could be the team’s first star every single month, as he’s that good. That said, he did show some signs of being an actual human being this month. In April, he posted four games with a save percentage (SV%) of sub .900. Oh, the horror! He was absolutely hung out to dry many a night but was able to come up with the big saves way more often than not to keep the Lightning within striking distance to still win the division.
The “Big Cat,” as he is referred to in these parts, was able to improve his stellar stats from March, except for total goals allowed. He did play in one more game in April, so the fact he gave up 28 goals this month to the 26 last month is inconsequential. He did have a better SV% while equaling his win total of nine. Vasilevskiy was as good as it gets in March, or so we thought. The team in front of him was playing better then, which was simply not the case this month.
Tampa, as a team, looked a lot shakier at times in the defensive zone, especially on the blueline. It’s not a huge secret that injuries have ravaged the backline a good portion of the year, but it seemed to really take its toll in April. Stalwarts like Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak missed multiple games, with Rutta still yet to return. Young players like Cal Foote and Mikhail Sergachev were forced to play heavier minutes, especially when Ryan McDonagh went down for a stretch of games. With all the upheaval on the backline, Vasi was forced to make even more tough stops than usual and make them he did.
Honorable Mention: Blake Coleman
Coleman has had a knack for coming up with big plays during critical parts of important games since the trade a year ago that brought him to Tampa from the New Jersey Devils. During the first few games of April, he was ice cold, not recording a single point through the first four games. Then came the fifth game, and he was able to put one home and chip in two helpers in a wild 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. That game seemed to turn it around for Blake as he didn’t go more than two games without a point for the rest of the month, finishing with 10 points in 15 games.