3 Signs the Lightning Are Back as Stanley Cup Contenders

There have been too many false starts and stops to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s mediocre 2019-20 to count, event at just the 41-game mark. As soon as a flash of greatness of last season’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning team appears, it gets ripped away thanks to a demoralizing defeat.

Far too often, analysts have attempted to pinpoint a specific turning point in the Lightning’s season, only to fall flat on their faces. It’s worth one more shot at least, especially seeing as this time, a third defeat this season to the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals on Dec. 21, seems different somehow. Here’s why:

3. Lightning Hit Seven Straight Wins

Since that loss to the Caps, the Lightning are undefeated. They’ve impressively rattled off a season-high seven consecutive victories to push themselves into an Atlantic Division playoff spot, with a record of 24-13-4. They’ve got two games in hand on the Atlantic-leading Boston Bruins who have seven more points. The race is just beginning and there’s plenty of runway left.

Of course, the Lightning haven’t been this dominant all season. Technically, they weren’t even this dominant all of last season, when they earned 128 points in the regular season. As an illustration of that fact, consider the Lightning’s PDO.

Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate
The Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate a goal against the Montreal Canadiens – (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

PDO is a measurement that combines save and shooting percentages, to effectively quantify luck. Anything below a sum of 1.00 is considered unlucky. Anything above, you’re playing with house money. Currently, the Lightning’s PDO is 1.012, which ranks third behind the Colorado Avalanche (1.032) and Boston Bruins (1.020). Predictably, during the Lightning’s win streak, it’s been significantly higher… off the charts, really: 1.068

Of course, this luck can’t last. Things will most likely normalize over time. However, who’s to say what’s normal for the Lightning? After all, their PDO for all of last season was 1.022, meaning they’re naturally dominant. The early-going this season, when they were struggling, that was the aberration.

Now, the Lightning are admittedly not as great as they’re playing right now, but they’re much better than their lack of luck earlier this season indicated. Instead of the playoff contender they had been acting as up to now, they’re clearly Stanley Cup contenders.

2. Vasilevskiy Returns to Form

As mentioned, PDO factors in a given team or player’s save percentage. Obviously, the save percentage of Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning’s resident Vezina Trophy-winning goalie, has been incredible during the team’s current hot streak.

Tampa Bay Lightning Andrei Vasilevskiy
Andrei Vasilevskiy – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)

Overall though, Vasilevskiy’s save percentage is a relatively pedestrian .911 on the season. However, it isn’t as much another normalization at work here as it is Vasilevskiy simply playing like he can. Vasilevskiy’s recent stellar play isn’t simply a by-product of good bounces, as it predates the Lightning’s hot streak.

Following a 5-4 defeat to the Minnesota Wild on Dec. 5, Vasilevskiy has gone 9-1-1… as in someone please call, because the rest of the league is in dire need of help. It may have taken the rest of the Lightning two weeks to catch up to him, but what’s interesting is his save percentage over that stretch is .924. His save percentage all of last season, when he won the Vezina? .925. Chances are good this is the Vasilevskiy Lightning fans have grown to know and love. He’s back, finally.

1. Atlantic Division Dominance

During the streak, the Lightning have run into (and defeated) a few Atlantic rivals. The thing is, the Lightning have been dominant against teams from their division all season long, with a mind-boggling 16-2 record up to this point. They’ve beaten the Bruins alone twice already, with two more meetings scheduled for early March.

Those upcoming meetings against the Bruins can realistically hold playoff implications for the simple reason that there’s a clear trend here. More than that, it’s a trend that can define both the second half of the Lightning’s regular season and the playoffs, presumably.

Luke Witkowski of the Tampa Bay Lightning – (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Of note, the Lightning have 10 more games against Atlantic opponents during the second half of the season. Even if the goal is to win the Atlantic outright and they fail as a result of the relatively horrible start to the season, the Lightning didn’t necessarily handicap themselves. Just the opposite.

There’s a popular theory behind the Lightning’s first-round collapse against the Columbus Blue Jackets last spring. Many say it’s due to the lack of adversity the Lightning faced all last season. Once the deck was stacked against them, they folded. Maybe they’re stronger for it now.

You may not buy into that specific romanticized perspective, so look at the situation from a practical point of view instead: If they fall just short of winning the Atlantic crown because of that bad start, they’re effectively guaranteed to face a division rival in each of the first two rounds. They should have no trouble whatsoever if that ends up being the case.

Granted, if they make it to the third round, they’ll potentially face the Capitals, who hold their number in turn. Regardless, however this season ultimately turns out for the Lightning, they’re poised to technically improve upon their 128-point campaign from last year. Not too many contenders can say that.