Tampa Bay Lightning: Off Last Year’s Pace?

Oh, there have been problems for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season – particularly on the road.

“It seems that every away game we have played this year we are just horrible, horrible, not even average”, said head couch Guy Boucher recently. “It’s just disgusting.”

And depending on who you ask, the Bolts’ troubles have included giving up too many shots, inconsistent goaltending, too many turnovers, playing with too much confidence, playing with too little confidence, not playing well in the first period, taking too many penalties, and of course, the fact that defensive cornerstone Mattias Ohlund remains sidelined, recovering from arthroscopic knee surgeries.

After the first six games of the season, the Lightning had only one regulation win. Meanwhile, Southeast Division rivals, the Washington Capitals – a team that the Bolts bounced from the playoffs last spring in four straight – was tearing up the league, winning their first seven games.

Eight games and 12 points later, the Lightning’s score sheets have improved and most critics have settled back into their seats for the moment.

Steven Stamkos in action last November. Were the Lightning playing better hockey this time last year? (Icon SMI)

Looking Back to Early November 2010

With all the change surrounding the organization in the past year – new faces, new uniforms, a newly renovated (and about to be renamed) arena – one can be forgiven if memories of last fall are fuzzy.

For the record, after 14 games in the 2010-11 campaign the Lightning had a record of 8-4-2-0, good for 18 points.

Steven Stamkos had already scored 13 goals, the team had lit the lamp 43 times, and had allowed 39 goals-against. They had shut opposing teams out twice, and had been shut out twice, including an ugly 0-6 loss to the Florida.

And how about this year?

With 16 points, the Bolts, despite their tough road trip to start the season, are only a game’s worth of points off last year’s pace.

Stamkos, who began the season quietly with only a single goal in the first five matches, now leads the team with 10. Meanwhile, the team has once again scored 43 goals in their first 14 games, but has given up 44 to opponents this year. They have shutout opponents twice, but have yet to be kept off the scoreboard.

So the Lightning are hardly off last year’s pace when it comes to their play.

Although there is one interesting numerical difference between the two seasons.

After five home games last year the Bolts were drawing an attendance of 15 616, while this year the Bolts have sold out all but one of their home games, and have drawn an average of 18 999 fans. And don’t forget that the St. Pete Times Forum had its number of seats reduced as part of the recent renovations.

Looking Ahead

The road victory against the Florida Panthers may well have been a key turning point for the Lightning. Not only did the Bolts come back from a three-goal deficit, and not only did they do it on the road, but they beat their cross-state rivals – something that the Lightning have struggled to do this season, having dropped the first two contests to the Panthers.

In fact, those two losses to the Panthers may be obscuring something that we can expect from the Lighting moving forward. At 81.8%, the Bolts have the 18th best penalty-kill percentage. But seven of the ten power-play goals-against were allowed in those first two Florida matches.

Even better, the Bolts have severely reduced the number of penalties they’re taking. In those disastrous first six games, the Lightning found themselves short-handed 38 times. In the following eight games, they have beena man short only 19 times.

Boucher is now paring down to what he believes will be the group that determines the success or failure of the team.” Erik Erlendsson, Tampa Bay Online columnist

This more responsible play has recently been matched with increased stability in the lines being put out on the ice by Boucher. With the recent departure of Mattias Ritola (for the Swedish Elite League), the forward lines are stabilizing and, according to Erik Erlendsson of Tampa Bay Online, “Boucher is now paring down to what he believes will be the group that determines the success or failure of the team, plus the roles players ultimately will play.”

Now that the Lightning have recovered from their difficult beginning to the season, you can bet that they will be looking to make the most of the upcoming string of homes games (four of their next six), before they have to endure another extended road trip that got the critics so excited in the first place.