Bolts Breakdown: Back in the Playoff Picture

Thanks to a 10-game winning streak, the Tampa Bay Lightning are now second in the Atlantic Division with 58 points. That streak continued this week with a dominating 9-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, one of their best all-around performances in a 4-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes Thursday, and a gritty 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday. However, all good things must come to an end as they dropped their final game of the week to the New Jersey Devils, 3-1.

Related: Bolts Breakdown: Winning Streak Continues

Their three wins saw the first hat trick for rookie Carter Verhaeghe and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s first two shutouts of the season. There wasn’t much negative to talk about this week, and that’s always a good thing. But, no team is perfect, and there are always things to work on. Let’s break down what went right and wrong this week.

What Went Right

The Big Cat Is Back

As I mentioned before, Vasilevskiy earned his first two shutouts of the season against the Coyotes and Flyers. His save percentage (.915) and goals-against average (2.58) continue to trend upward and are near his career averages, and he has been a huge reason the Lightning have gotten comfortably back into the playoff picture.

Tampa Bay Lightning Andrei Vasilevskiy
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (AP Photo/Tom Gannam, File)

An encouraging statistic for Vasilevskiy is his goals saved above average (GSAA), which is now at 6.68. Since the winning streak started and into this week, he has been dominant against shots from high danger areas — a complete opposite of what he was in most of the first half of the season. When the Lightning needed a big save this week, the big cat was there and standing tall. Without Vasilevskiy’s exceptional play recently, the Bolts might not be in the playoff picture right now.

Killing Penalties

Yes, the Lightning have continued to take penalties, but they have one of the best penalty-killing units in the league this season. They’re currently at 83 percent with only five teams ahead of them in terms of penalty-kill percentage. They took 12 penalties this week and didn’t give up a goal — four of those coming against the Canucks whose power play ranks fifth in the league.

Tampa Bay Lightning Pat Maroon
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Pat Maroon (John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lightning are seventh in both penalty minutes (432) and penalty minutes per game (9:49). They don’t make it easy on themselves, but they have proved they can bail themselves out, night in and night out. Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn have been exceptional on the kill, as well as defensemen Erik Cernak and Jan Rutta, who is filling in for an injured Ryan McDonagh. The penalty kill has been arguably the most important part of their game over the last week and a big reason they won 10 in a row.

What Went Wrong

Too Many Penalties

This didn’t necessarily “go wrong” for the Lightning this week since the penalty killers did a great job, but it would be nice to have a game where the Lightning avoided taking penalties. However, that seems to be part of their system — they are forced to take penalties when one of their defensemen is caught on the rush. There’s no reason to change those systems since they have proven to work, but the Bolts could use their sticks and body positioning better to limit the number of penalties they take.

Joel Eriksson Ek, Mikhail Sergachev
Minnesota Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek moves around Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Lightning leader in penalty minutes is Pat Maroon — a known fighter and agitator — but next on the list are defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Cernak at 39 and 27 minutes, respectively. Those are two young defensemen who still have some things to learn in the NHL, but Victor Hedman and Kevin Shattenkirk each have more than 20 penalty minutes on the season as well. Hedman and Cernak are valuable penalty killers, and if those guys are in the box, it gets a little bit tougher for the Lightning. They could make it easier on themselves and not take penalties, but that’s much easier said than done.

Looking ahead, the Lightning have three more games before they get nine days off for the All-Star break. First is a game in Tampa Bay where they host the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, then they travel to face the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets on Thursday and Friday, respectively.

All three of those games are easily winnable for the Lightning, and if they want to catch Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic, they need all six points.