Lightning Looking Strong After Slow Start

After a chaotic first month, the Tampa Bay Lightning have finally ended their early-season slump and are looking to reclaim the Atlantic Division from the red-hot Florida Panthers, who they defeated in overtime on Saturday night. For many years, the Atlantic (with the Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Florida Panthers) has been considered the toughest division in the NHL, boasting some of the most talented players and best depth.

While many thought the Lightning would cruise to the division title, they have struggled to find their groove this season. They didn’t get a regulation lead in a game for two weeks and were below .500 after six games. They had a few factors that led to their rough start, some less obvious than others, but it’s worth considering the difference between those games and the ones they dominated.

The start of these issues began in the first game of the season, where the Lightning lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-2, who were without all their stars (except for Kris Letang). Over their next few games, things weren’t improving as fast as fans were hoping for. While they won games, they weren’t strong games, and were getting outshot. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the main reason for the wins, as he has played very well, even with the defensive struggles that plagued the first half of games played so far.

It wasn’t until the Lightning faced the Penguins for the second time this season that we saw their improved play. Nikita Kucherov was out of the lineup after a few games with a lower body injury, which in turn brought some players from the Syracuse Crunch up to the NHL. With some new faces like Alex Barre-Boulet and Boris Katchouk in the lineup, the Lightning got their revenge with a 5-1 win. It was Tampa Bay’s first regular-season win and sparked a turnaround.

Since that win, the Bolts have stepped up their game and since that second game against Pittsburgh, the Lightning gave themselves a 6-0-2 record, including a win against the New York Islanders on Monday night, and are now 8-3-3 overall this season. While Barre-Boulet isn’t in the lineup as of now, him being brought up is still helping the Lightning, as they got to figure out the lines with him in and out of the lineup. Katchouk, as of now, is still in the lineup and slowly improving.

Alex Barre-Boulet Tampa Bay Lightning
Alex Barre-Boulet, Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

As long as the Lightning can maintain this play, there shouldn’t be anything else changed until Nikita Kucherov comes back from long-term injury reserve, or if another player gets injured, especially on defense. Backups should be made just in case something does happen, because in hockey, anything can happen.

What Factors Lead to the Rough Start?

Defense

The defense for the Lightning struggled badly as soon as Bogosian went into injury reserve after the first game of the season. After the loss of David Savard to free agency, the Lightning brought back Bogosian in free agency, who won a cup with the Lightning in the 2019-20 season. With him gone, Andrej Sustr, who the Lightning picked up in free agency, was put into the lineup. While Sustr played better than anyone thought he would, it wasn’t quite enough, as the lines weren’t working out. The defense was letting too many shots get to Vasilevskiy, and in return, it lead to a poor start to the season.

Finishing Chances

Offense has been great this season, there’s not much to complain about, but the one thing that caused a lot of issues to start this season was not being able to finish the chances being made. Some good examples of this is Corey Perry on the second line, where he has played very well, but the chances he creates don’t go through, leaving him with just one point this season. There’s also Brayden Point, who had a slow start to the season because the chances created weren’t being able to get finished by him or his teammates.

Related: Revisiting Departed Lightning Players From 2020-21 Team

Consistency

Nobody was consistent to start the season, but it’s not something to blame the players for, or even the coaches. This happens to teams every season, and it happened to the Lightning to start the 2019-20 season, where they eventually won the Stanley Cup. Consistency was bad for the Lightning to start the season, as the plays seemed to always be different every game and it was hard to tell what the team’s plan was, but they have now found lines and strategies that work well with each other, and have consistently been playing off of that in the last few games.

How Did the Lightning Return to Normal?

Depth

The Lightning started to utilize their depth players more instead of focusing on having the stars do most of the work. Lot’s of different names have started to pop up on special teams, and we see players like Mathieu Joseph, Katchouk, and Jan Rutta a lot more now, and in situations they can help the most in. This has helped the Lightning play a much better game, especially in the offensive zone, where chances are being finished and better plays are being made. In nearly every game now, depth players are getting praised by fans because of how well they’ve played and helped the team.

Jan Rutta Tampa Bay Lightning
Jan Rutta, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The depth on the Lightning roster is better than most other teams in the league. Some key depth players currently on the Lightning are Anthony Cirelli, Cal Foote, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who all have played key roles for the Lightning so far this season. Most people who don’t watch hockey don’t understand why depth matters, but in hockey, everyone on the team has a role, and it’s a role they need to do well if they want to help their team make the playoffs, and maybe even win the Stanley Cup.

Improved Defense

Fans have noticed a big difference in play by the Lightning’s defense ever since the 5-1 win against the Penguins two weeks into the season. While not starting off perfect, it still improved, but fans noticed the biggest difference against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night, where the Lightning only allowed for 28 shots on net. Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev have led the Lightning’s defense, with Sergachev doing more defense work and Hedman doing more offensive work, as he is an offensive minded defenseman. On Monday night, the Lightning had a landslide 4-1 victory over the New York Islanders, a team many teams are afraid to play against. The defense shined, only allowing 26 shots to get to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who in turn only allowed one goal to get past him. Even though that was arguably the best defensive game the Lightning have had this season, over the last few games, the Lightning have started to find their perfect defensive lines and strategies and have looked stronger than before.

Near Perfect Lines

Nothing is perfect, but these Lightning lines are very close to perfect. These lines all work very well, and the players on these lines know how their line mates play nearly perfectly. One of the strongest lines this season has been the Killorn-Stamkos-Perry line, which has been a great mix of goal scoring and playmaking, and they’ve worked very well with the Hedman-Sergachev pairing. Another line that gets overlooked is the Palat-Point-Cirelli line, which has made a lot of great plays, but their main issue is just not being able to finish on the chances made. With Ondrej Palat being a great playmaker, Point being a top point scorer, and Cirelli being a fantastic two-way player, it makes for a very strong line. These lines have only recently been made, but for the last five games, fans have seen magic happen, and the coaching staff deserves all the praise the fans have given them.

With all this being said, it’s hard to tell whether or not this streak will continue, but with the schedule the Lightning has had since playing the Arizona Coyotes in late October, it’s hard to see them playing badly. Winning against the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders was big for the Lightning, and fans should expect to see this top notch play by the Lightning for the rest of the season, as long as players stay healthy, and the coaches don’t change too much up in the future. If the Lightning bring this to the playoffs, there’s a good possibility the Lightning raise their third Stanley Cup in a row.


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