The 2020-21 season was always going to be chaotic — shortened training camps with no exhibition games, a compacted schedule, and potential complications due to COVID cancellations. The Dallas Stars were the first team to have a game postponed due to the virus, pushing the start of their season back to Jan 22, effectively giving themselves and the Florida Panthers an extended training camp, as well as the Tampa Bay Lightning an early-season bye week.
While the extended practice sessions will be beneficial to both the Stars and Panthers, it is the Lightning who will get the most from having an early season break.
Hot Start Proves Lightning Are Game-Ready
The Lightning were able to use their first two games of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks as a way to test their legs in true game situations. Dallas and Florida do not have the opportunity to play in any exhibition games so, while they both have extended practice time before their seasons begin, they will be thrust into immediate action. Whereas the Lightning were able to use their opening games against Chicago to get their legs up to game speed and work on in-game situations at a competition level that teams are unable to reach while playing intra-squad scrimmages.
After two games played at home, the Lightning now have six days to fine-tune their systems before they hit their first road trip of the season to face the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 21. Those extra days off at home will help keep the Lightning fresh longer by giving them extended rest this early in the season. With the 2020-21 season shaping up to be more of a grind than in past seasons, having an extended break will allow the Lightning extra time to solidify the foundation needed to become only the second team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions in the salary cap era.
Finding Kucherov’s Replacement on the Power Play
With the loss of Nikita Kucherov to hip surgery, it was well known that the Lightning were going to struggle to find someone to replace his scoring on the power play. Head coach Jon Cooper talked about the need to tinker and juggle lines around until he could find the right combination throughout training camp and mentioned that it could take a few games into the season to find the right fit. He seemed to have found something on opening night as Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat hooked up on the Lightning’s first opportunity midway through the first period.
While the Lightning scored again in the first game, finishing 2-for-4 with 11 shots on the power play, they were stymied in the second game going 0-for-3 with 7 shots with the man advantage. Typically, a 2-for-7 conversion rate is good, but when the Lightning are only scoring two goals on 18 shots against a team like the Blackhawks, there is still a lot left to be desired.
Tightening Up the Little Things
Jumping out to a quick lead in the Central Division with four points from two wins was one of the keys the Lightning were looking to establish early in the season. Though the team picked up where they left off after last season’s championship, there are still areas where Cooper would like to see his team get a little better. Like being more disciplined when it comes to giving up shots in their own end and taking penalties.
The Lightning gave up seven power-play opportunities to the Blackhawks during their two-game stand. Chicago converted twice, once in each game, to match the Lightning in man-advantage opportunities. Cooper discussed in his post-game press conference that cutting out these mental mistakes and limiting the number of chances in their own zone was going to be essential for the team moving forward.
Tampa Bay used the first two games of the 2020-21 season to show that they are still the best team in the NHL. Thanks to a rearranging of schedules, the Lightning now hope to utilize a short break in a chaotic season to fine-tune their game and get even better.
Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings for The Hockey Writers and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.