While it is probably a coincidence that the Tampa Bay Lightning have seemed to use a motto from the military. Take the classic 1986 movie Heartbreak Ridge for example. During his time working with a rag-tag squad, Clint Eastwood as Gunny Highway says, “You’re Marines now. You adapt. You overcome. You improvise.” Not only have the Lightning seemed to have embraced that philosophy this season, but this also appears to be a trend over the past few years that have led to back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships.
Lightning Succeed as Offensive Production Drops
Just a few years ago, the Lightning were the top-scoring team in the NHL. From 2017 to 2020, they were the highest-scoring team in the NHL in 5v5 situations. Those numbers dropped a bit in the past two seasons, as they ranked 11th in the 2020-21 season and ninth this past season. This is not a huge drop by any means, but it comes at a time when scoring has been trending up in recent years. That trend has continued in this year’s playoffs, as they are down 1.5 goals over previous campaigns. In the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, their expected goals dropped to 1.85. They were a little better in the Florida series, and have even improved somewhat in the current series with the New York Rangers. Good timing for the Lightning as they are facing one of the top goalies in the NHL in Igor Shesterkin.
Yet, the Lightning continues to succeed. Part of their drop in production on offense may be due to injuries. In the current playoffs, Brayden Point has not played since Game 7 of the Maple Leafs’ series. He has been a vital cog in the scoring success, especially in the playoffs. Last year, Nikita Kucherov was out for the entire regular season because of a hip injury. Thankfully, he was able to return for the playoffs. Another factor in the decline can be due in a bit to a combination of age and fatigue. There are a good handful of players in their 30s, and when you combine that with the extra games played over the previous Stanley Cup runs, you could understand why numbers drop.
Last season, the power play was one of the key areas of success for the Lightning. However, they struggled in the regular season. In mid-March, their power play was just average, ranking 16th in the NHL. This was highlighted by a 1-for-19 drought with the man-advantage over a six-game stretch. They were able to rebound in April to look more like the unit that was so proficient in last year’s playoffs. This proficiency was quite apparent in the all-important Game 3 win against the Rangers when they scored two of their three tallies on the power play. It’s tough to rely on power plays for continued success in the playoffs though, but it is at least comforting to know that the unit is still successful.
Lightning Have a More Defensive Mindset
The last time the Lightning had the highest-ranked 5v5 goals per game was 2018-19 when they were promptly swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. It was at that point they seemed to learn to adapt and improvise by focusing more on defense. This has allowed them to play more consistent hockey. While the defensive effort may have decreased their scoring numbers, they still get goals when they need them. They can still play up-tempo hockey when needed.
During the Lightning’s Stanley Cup runs, they were successful because they managed the puck well, prevented odd-man rushes, protected the front of their net, and limited good scoring chances. Up and down the lineup, when the Lightning are successful, they get that effort and will occasionally get a goal from the bottom six, such as when Pat Maroon opened the scoring for the Lightning in Game 6. When they struggle, those things do not happen and they lose, sometimes in a big way.
The biggest example of the defense vs. offense balance is that the line of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Brandon Hagel have not scored through the first four games of the Rangers series, but have done a great job of containing their top scorers. The Lightning have come to realize that depth matters, no matter if it is in the offensive or defensive zones.
Legendary University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant had once said, “Offense sells tickets. Defense wins championships.” Bucking the NHL trend of an increase in goal-scoring, the Lightning have been able to play outstanding defense in front of their elite goaltender while still being able to score enough to win games. A formula that has led to two Stanley Cups, with a third being ever closer in sight.
Jim Bay writes about the Tampa Bay Lightning for THW. A retired Special Education Teacher, Jim enjoys writing about hockey and all sports when he is not slashing his way around local golf courses. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow Jim on Twitter. (https://twitter.com/baysports007)