One month of the 2019-20 NHL season is done, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are currently three points out of a playoff spot. So far this season, they have been struggling with penalties and giving up high-danger scoring chances while being streaky at best on offense. This past week saw much of the same.
In three games against the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, the Lightning were bested in two out of three and barely managed to beat the Devils in overtime. The same issues from October were evident in their three games this week. While their game against the Devils was exciting, it still wasn’t a great effort.
From the good to the bad last week, let’s break it down.
Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point lead the Lightning in points, but fifth on the team is forward Ondrej Palat with nine points in 13 games. Palat has arguably been the most consistent player on the team this season, playing nearly 17 minutes a game and only taking 8 penalty minutes all season. As a player who has battled injuries over the last few seasons, he appears to have refound his game and his scoring abilities.
Last year, Palat had a career-low eight goals and 34 points, but he’s already got five goals this season. Against the Devils, he had two goals and an assist, and he added an assist against the Islanders. Three of his five goals have also come in the third period, which shows his knack for finding the net when it matters most. For as much love as the stars of the team get, Palat has arguably been their best under-the-radar player this season.
McElhinney’s First W
It was a tough start to the 2019-20 season for Curtis McElhinney as he lost his first three games — two in overtime — all while posting an average save percentage of .914 in those three games. Against the Devils, he didn’t have much of a chance on the first three goals scored against him, and midway through the third period, he made three massive saves to keep the Lightning within one.
Whether or not the team deserved to win that game, McElhinney deserved a win with the Lightning. It wasn’t the 35-save shutout everyone had hoped for, but he has given the Lightning a chance to win in every game he has played, and that’s all you can ask from your netminder.
The “P” Word: Penalties
I’ve written about this the past three weeks hoping the Lightning would be more disciplined, but that simply isn’t the case yet. They took 13 minutes in penalties against the Rangers (five of which were for a fight), 10 against the Devils and 11 against the Islanders (another five for fighting). It’s a testament to the penalty killers that the team only allowed two power play goals in those three games, but with all those penalties, it makes it extremely tough to create consistent offensive pressure.
There isn’t much else to say except that it’s frustrating to watch. The Lightning players know it’s an issue, too. However, as I mentioned before, the penalty kill finally bailed them out. It should be noted that the Rangers and the Devils are in the bottom half of the league in terms of power play percentage, and the Islanders are 11th, but it’s a sign of improvement.
The bottom line is penalties will make it exceptionally more difficult to win and, as I’ve said over the last month, things need to change.
In back-to-back games against the Rangers and Devils, the Lightning gave up 42 shots and only mustered 30 and 23, respectively. It didn’t help that they lost Pat Maroon and Victor Hedman midway through the game against the Rangers, but when that happens, other players need to step up in their place and make an impact, and they simply didn’t do that. The consistency wasn’t there and more times than not, it was their opponent who controlled the pace of play. That starts in your own zone.
The Lightning aren’t going to win every puck battle or one-on-one chance, but the team didn’t support each other in the offensive zone and lost a lot of battles along the boards for the puck against the Rangers. They aren’t a physical team, and they got beat around a bit this week in their own zone by strong forechecking, and that leads to turnovers and goals against. The Islanders had 36 hits on Friday and only 26 shots, but they executed when they got chances and forced the play deep into the Lightning zone. Teams have been doing this all season and it’s a reason the Lightning haven’t been able to find the same consistency they had last season.
Something the team didn’t face much of last season was adversity. Then the playoffs came around and you know the rest. However, the team is facing the same kind of adversity they saw from the Blue Jackets. Teams have adapted to the Lightning’s style of play, bottling up the neutral zone and getting pucks deep, forechecking like gophers and wearing down the Bolts. Now, it’s time for the Lightning to look in the mirror and figure out what kind of team they want to be — a team on the bubble or the Stanley Cup favorites they once were.
The Lightning will have until Friday, Nov. 8 to prepare for their two-game set in Sweden against the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL Global Series. The Sabres are second in the Atlantic Division with 20 points.