With the first month of the NHL season wrapping up, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a lot of positives (and a few negatives) to build upon after a successful first 11 games of the season. With a record of 8-2-1, the Lightning sit near the top of the Atlantic Division and have largely looked impressive with their early season play.
In many ways, the Lightning’s start to the 2018-19 season feels similar to 2017-18. For the better part of a decade, Tampa Bay has struggled in October, oftentimes failing to reach their expected potential until mid-November. Last year, though, the team had a historic start, amassing a 10-2-1 record before Halloween. Needless to say, this was the most wins and points earned in October in franchise history.
With their final game in October wrapped up this year, this gives a perfect time to better understand if their start to the 2018-19 season is a fluke, or if it will lead to sustained success as it did one year ago.
Scheduling Slowed Lightning in 2018-19
Arguably, the biggest difference between the Lightning’s 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons is the scheduling. In 2017-18, they played 13 games spread out in a typical fashion one would expect in October. Even their first two games, a back-to-back series against the Florida Panthers, wasn’t too atypical, as it is a relatively short distance to travel from Tampa, Florida to Sunrise, Florida.
The 2018-19 season, however, was a scheduling mess. Not only did Tampa Bay have to wait until the fourth day of the season to play their first game, but they also didn’t play their second game until the eighth. This led them to only play 11 games in the same timeframe that they played 13 last year.
While this weird scheduling didn’t derail the team by any means, it did cause them to have a sluggish start to the year. Even though they were able to win games, they looked out of sync as a whole, especially in their first loss to the Vancouver Canucks. This game came after a four-day break and showcased a rather lackadaisical Lightning squad who didn’t seem ready after only one game in a week.
The Lightning’s only other regulation loss, a 7-1 drubbing by the Arizona Coyotes, came after the team played five games in essentially a week during a tough Western Conference road test. The fact that they were able to escape that stretch of games with a 3-1-1 record should be seen as a real win, especially when you could see just how exhausted the players were by the time they played in Arizona.
Sustainable Scoring Spurs Lightning’s Success
Once you get past the poor scheduling, though, there is a real conversation to be had about just how good Tampa Bay looked through October. Unlike last season, where an incredibly productive Nikita Kucherov helped carry the team’s scoring output, this unit in Tampa Bay is finding success from top to bottom. For example, in their first 13 games last year, Kucherov accounted for 13 of the teams 53 goals, or roughly 25 percent of their overall goal-scoring.
In stark contrast, in 11 games this year, Kucherov only scored five of the Lightning’s 41 goals. This means that the Lightning aren’t having to rely on the hot hands of a Kucherov or Steven Stamkos to carry the team. Instead, they can defer to the rest of the line-up to contribute steadier goalscoring at key moments.
For example, fourth-liners like Ryan Callahan and Cerdique Paquette have scored important goals in both the first and third period of games to help the Lightning grind out a few hard earned points. In the past, the fourth line featured little offensive threat, but now they can contribute a score along with their defensive play. So, by having four threatening scoring lines, the Lightning have been able to open up opponents and take over games even when Kucherov and Stamkos are struggling.
Lightning Improving Much Maligned Defense
Overall, the biggest improvement for the Lightning, when compared to last season, is their defensive play. Even when they were setting franchise records in October last year, the team had a suspect defensive corps. Now, this unit has become one of their strongest features.
It starts with the Lightning’s vastly improved penalty kill, which was a serious point of contention for the team in years prior. The Bolt’s penalty kill gave up nine goals last October, setting the stage for a disappointing 28th ranking unit by the end of the season.
This year, the Lightning have the top unit in the league, killing off 93.2 percent of power plays so far. While that is an unsustainably high percentage due to a small sample size, it still bodes well for the future of the team.
Between the upgraded penalty kill and the overall improved defensive play, the Lightning allowed only 30 goals this October, down from 36 at the same point last year. If they can continue to limit their opponent’s goal-scoring opportunities, the team won’t need to be carried solely by the offense as they have in recent years.
Strong October Play Will Ease Lightning’s Season
The good news for the Lightning is that this strong play in October will only pay dividends as the season progresses. By stockpiling points now, they will be able to weather the eventual ebbs and flows of a season, much like how they still won the Atlantic Division despite a near month-long stretch of bad play last year.
Unlike the 2017-18 season, though, this start feels more sustainable. The Lightning aren’t forcing their all-world scorers to bail-out the team this time around. In fact, they earned 17 of a total 22 points in October with their stars largely quiet. So, unlike last year, we likely haven’t even seen the best play in Tampa Bay yet… which should excite fans around Tampa and terrify the rest of the NHL.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.