The Tampa Bay Lightning had another four games in seven days this week, three of which came against teams that many believe will make the playoffs. They went 2-2 in those four games, picking up wins against the Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins, while getting beat handily by the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals.
The week was a good representation of their entire season so far — poor effort one night and great effort another. They couldn’t beat the Islanders’ strong defensive structure, but a strong stand in the third period earned them a win against the Panthers. Then, they carried that momentum into one of their best games of the season against the Bruins, only to fall flat against the Capitals two nights later.
It was another week filled with some good and some bad, but all we can do now is break it down.
As a whole this week, the special teams for the Lightning were solid, especially the penalty killers. They only gave up one goal in nine shorthanded instances, and they only took more than two penalties in one of the four games. The penalty killers had their issues early in the season, but over the month of November and into December, they seemed to have turned the corner and figured out what went wrong.
As for the power play, they were the reason they beat the Bruins. Two of their three goals in that game came on the man advantage, and they added one power play goal against the Capitals on Saturday. However, they missed on four other opportunities against the Caps and were scoreless against the Panthers and Islanders in five opportunities. They were just over 23% on the power play this week — about 4% higher than league average — and looked good, but still could have been even better.
Being More Physical
The Lightning have never been known as a physical team, but they have been making an effort to play the body more often this season. They out-hit both the Bruins and the Panthers, tied the Islanders with 22 hits and were only five hits behind the Capitals.
The Lightning are 14th in the league in hits with 722, and the Capitals, Bruins and Islanders are all ahead of them in that category. The Panthers are second from the bottom in the league, but this shows the Lightning aren’t afraid to throw around their bodies.
There have been times this year — specifically against Western Conference teams — where they seem to try to do too much in the way of hitting. This week, it played to their advantage against skill teams like the Bruins and Panthers. But, against teams with big bodies and good defensive structure like the Capitals and Islanders, it will take more than just piling up the hits to get a victory.
Andrei Vasilevskiy played two very strong games, and he was the reason the Lightning beat the Bruins and Panthers. However, he wasn’t so strong against the Capitals, and Curtis McElhinney was not good at all versus the Islanders. As a tandem, they have a .900 save percentage (SV%) and .906 SV% at five-on-five, both of which are below league averages (.906 and .909, respectively).
Giving up five goals in two out of every four games will not make it easy on any offense, even if they’re as good as the Lightning. Their system will allow other teams to get chances, and that’s where the goalies come in. Vasilevskiy was nearly perfect last year and flushed out those chances with ease, but his minus-0.69 goals saved above average and .522 quality start percentages are his lowest since 2015.
McElhinney has been hung out to dry a bit this year, but he was simply not good against the Islanders. His stats this year are not pretty — an .898 SV% and 3.62 goals against average are near the worst of his career. Yes, the defense will give up chances, but the goaltenders need to step their game up immensely if the Lightning want to get back into the Atlantic Division playoff race.
Shutting Them Down
A consistent theme in the Lightning’s losses this year has been the string of goals scored against them. In many games, they will get scored on in waves — two, three or four goals at a time — without answering. This is what happened against the Islanders and Capitals. The Islanders got two goals within two minutes in the second period, and then Steven Stamkos scored with four and a half minutes left in the second. Then, the Islanders steamrolled the Lightning with three unanswered goals in the third.
The same was true against the Capitals. Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring for the Caps in the first period, then Point answered late in the second period. But, in the third, the Capitals scored twice in less than a minute. It took the Lightning about eight minutes to get their second goal, but they gave up another goal about a minute later.
The Lightning have been able to shut teams down in the past, but this year teams seem to have figured out how to maintain their momentum when scoring a goal. The best teams — the Bruins, Capitals and Islanders — have the ability to shut their opponent down. The Lightning need to find that and make it a focus in each game.
Coming up this week are games with the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, the Dallas Stars on Thursday and the Capitals on Saturday. The Lightning will be in good shape if they can get four points out of those games, but they must win the game against the Capitals. They have yet to beat them this season, and the Lightning need to prove they can hang with the big boys.