With 20 games in the books, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves fourth in the Atlantic Division, with 25 points. They started the season 5-4, having lost three of their first four games.
At times, the Lightning have played up to their championship level. Though, there have been just as many games where they seem to be out-matched. The competition in the Eastern Conference is tough, and no team is a pushover this season. Simple mistakes can be amplified, and every point is precious.
So, let’s examine how the Lightning have fared after 20 games.
Lightning’s Offensive Production
The Lightning are averaging 3.5 goals per game, with Nikita Kucherov leading the team in points again this season with 31.
Although he did not score a point in the team’s first five games, Brandon Hagel is starting to emerge as an offensive weapon; he has scored six goals and nine assists since being held scoreless. Playing on the top line with Kucherov and Brayden Point is helping the young winger develop into the player the team expected when they acquired him from the Chicago Blackhawks.
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Steven Stamkos started the season scoring seven goals in five games. While no one expected him to continue at that pace, the captain has cooled off some, but he still has 23 points in 20 games while leading the second line. Joining him are Vladislav Namestnikov, who has been quiet with only four assists, and Nick Paul, who has supplied nine goals, which ranks him second in scoring on the team.
The Lightning’s inconsistent power play is scoring 26.5 percent, which is seventh in the league. Kucherov continues to command the power-play unit and accounts for 18 points on the man advantage.
No one assumed that the Lightning’s defense would be on par with their championship seasons, given the loss of Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta during the offseason. They just recently got Zach Bogosian back into the lineup, and while the defense hasn’t been terrible, something is missing.
In 2021-22, the Lightning only allowed five short-handed goals all season. So far this year, they have already given up five short-handed goals, the most by any team in the league, and their penalty kill is at 77.6 percent, which is in the bottom half of the NHL.
Granted, the Lightning have struggled with early injuries to Erik Cernak, Cal Foote and Nick Perbix, who had been partnered with Mikhail Sergachev during Bogosian’s recuperation from surgery. Since Sergachev’s contract extension, he is proving his worth on both sides of the ice. He leads the defense with 49 blocked shots and 19 points and has added 23 hits through 20 games. He is averaging 23:60 minutes per game, second on the team to Victor Hedman.
It’s no secret that Andrei Vasilevskiy has played more hockey than any other goalie during the past three seasons. During the 2021-22 season, he played 77 percent of the Lightning’s games during the regular season and every minute of the postseason. It’s obvious that the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender needs more rest in 2022-23. This season, he has started 15 of the first 20 games, which is still 75 percent of the games. Backup goalie, Brian Elliott, has played in five games — mostly when the team plays back-to-back.
What’s more concerning is the fact that Vasilevskiy is 8-6-1 in those 15 games. In contrast, Elliott’s record is 4-1-0. However, Vasilevskiy overall numbers are better, as he’s posted a .905 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.94 goals-against average (GAA) versus his backup, who has a .891 SV% and a 3.37 GAA.
Vasilevskiy has made some brilliant saves thus far this season, but he has also let in some very weak goals. Typically, when he’s in net, the players can afford to take more risks with the puck in their own zone, confident that their goalie will make a save if they give up the puck. This season, Vasilevskiy isn’t stopping as many of those breakaways. The ability to have teammates block shots in front of him has been one reason that the team has been successful over the years. But so far this season, Paul is the offensive player with the most blocked shots (18). The Lightning should benefit from the return of Anthony Cirelli, who led the offense with 67 blocked shots last season.
Grade: Grade: C+
Evaluating the Lightning’s Performance
With 20 games completed, the good news is that the Lightning are in the playoff race with 25 points. The bad news is that the team hasn’t played as well as many had expected. The fierce competition in the Eastern Conference is certainly a contributing factor. However, the team needs to reduce turnovers that lead to too many breakaways that can challenge any goalie.
Although scoring, including the power play, has been producing at a respectable level, I would never want the team to need to outscore their opponents. That’s not Lightning hockey — nor is it a good way to secure a playoff spot.
It’s still only 20 games into the season, and the Lightning have proven that they are dedicated to winning and advancing to their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup Final. The team just needs to work through some early-season issues before it’s too late.
Lydia Szyjka is a writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from H.B. Plant High School—never dreaming her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is director of communications for a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the alumni magazine. An avid hockey fan, she and her husband live in Delaware and watch every Lightning game on the NHL’s Center Ice.