Earlier in the season, the main criticism of the Tampa Lightning was that they were “underperforming.” They were not winning as much as many had predicted, and as general manager Julien BriseBois said, “Our record has lagged behind our play on the ice.”
This week, the Lightning continued their winning streak to seven straight with wins over the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes. The Lightning had to grind out all of those wins — a three-goal comeback to beat the Sabres, Andrei Vasilevskiy stole the win from the Canadiens and they had to grind out a win against the Senators. They also added a strong win against the Carolina Hurricanes on the second night of a back-to-back.
It might not have been their best hockey, but the Lightning showed a compete level in each game rarely seen in the first half of the season. From the good to the bad, let’s break down this past week.
The Big Cat Comes up Big
Let’s start with the main reason the Lightning are still on a winning streak, and that’s Vasilevskiy. Against the Canadiens, he stopped 38 of 39 shots, many from high-quality scoring areas. His .974 save percentage in that game is tied for his highest this season; if he had wavered even slightly, the Lightning might not have earned two points. He also stopped 28 of 29 shots from the Hurricanes and gave the Lightning a chance to win Sunday night.
Vasilevskiy has had a save percentage over .900 in four of his last five starts, and his overall numbers are starting to even out as well. His goals-against average, which was above 2.80 for much of the first half of the season, is now at 2.77, and his goals saved above average is just barely back on the positive side. If he can continue to play the way he did against the Canadiens, the Lightning are going to be a tough team to beat down the stretch.
Surging Second Line
I mentioned them last week, but the second line of Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn were dynamite again this week. They had a combined 10 points in four games and helped get the Lightning back in the game against the Sabres. Killorn had four of those 10 points, which included three goals. He’s now tied for fifth on the team in scoring and only trails Brayden Point for the team lead in goals.
What makes this line so effective is their blend of scoring and defensive abilities. Cirelli and Killorn are two of best defensive forwards around, and that gives Stamkos the opportunity to create more offense and take more shots (he leads the team with 120). With the Lightning’s first line, head coach Jon Cooper has a 1A and 1B option for who he wants to roll out there, and that has proved to be a big reason for their recent success.
Defense Providing Offense
Along with two great top lines and a deep forward corps, the Lightning have defensemen who are great at creating offense. Victor Hedman is third in the league among defensemen with 39 points, and Kevin Shattenkirk has 26 points in what’s been a nice bounce-back season for him. Mikhail Sergachev also has 21 points and is becoming the defenseman the Lightning hoped for when they acquired him from the Canadiens.
Having three players on the blue line who can score at a steady rate is essential in today’s NHL, and the Lightning have no shortage of that and a system that allows defensemen to produce. They’re also responsible defensively, all of their defensemen have a plus rating. That’s to be expected with a high-power offense like the Lightning, but it also proves they’re responsible.
In four games last week, the Lightning took a combined 15 minor penalties. They’ve had issues taking penalties in the past but, for the most part, the penalty killers were able to bail their teammates out. That was the case this week as they only gave up one power-play goal; it’s much easier to play five on five rather than down a man for eight minutes in each game.
The style the Lightning play might cause them to take more penalties, but there has to be a way to limit them. Three of the top five players on the Bolts who lead the team in penalty minutes are defensemen — Sergachev (39 minutes), Erik Cernak (27 minutes) and Hedman (21 minutes). The Lightning are also one of seven teams who average more than 10 penalty minutes per game. They’ve been playing well lately, but it would be a lot easier if they could limit the number of penalties they take.
Looking ahead, the Lightning have another four-game week that starts Tuesday night at home against the Vancouver Canucks. They then host the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday and are back on the road for a back-to-back with the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
The Canucks and Coyotes will test the Lightning to see if they can hang in there with two of the stronger Western Conference teams. It will specifically test the Lightning’s physicality and pure offensive skills against two teams that don’t give up too many goals.