It took 13 games and almost 5,000 miles for the Tampa Bay Lightning to find their game. They won both Global Series games against the Buffalo Sabres and did so in fairly convincing fashion. Their 3-2 win on Friday was one of their most complete performances this season and they were able to overcome some common issues in Saturday’s 5-3 victory.
In general, it was a very positive week for the Lightning. They played well while picking up two wins, and Victor Hedman was back home in Sweden to play in front of his hometown fans. He didn’t disappoint — scoring a goal and an assist in two games while being one of the best players on the ice. However, the Lightning could have let their second game slip away as puck management and defensive zone play were issues for the first 30 minutes.
From the good to the bad, let’s break down the Bolts two Global Series games against the Sabres.
The Fourth Line
After a few weeks of shuffling lines, head coach Jon Cooper might have found one that fits. The fourth line in the Global Series consisted of Yanni Gourde, Pat Maroon and Cedric Paquette. Before the games in Sweden, Gourde failed to register a point in his last four games, but he scored in both games and was flying around the ice with a renewed vigor. Maroon was pointless in his last six games before the Global series, and then he had an assist on Friday and two goals — and nearly a hat trick — on Saturday. Paquette, who missed the first two weeks due to injury, had just one point going into the Global Series, but he had three assists over those two games.
This line scored two of the Lightning’s five goals on Saturday, including the game-winner by Gourde, who also scored the game-winning goal on Friday. According to NHL.com, they had 6 of the team’s 14 points and all three had their first multi-point games of the season.
Now that it’s been done, this line seems like a no-brainer. Gourde can put up 40-50 points a season, Maroon brings a big body and veteran leadership, and Paquette certainly isn’t going to shy away from anyone when it comes to standing up for his teammates. Moving forward, expect this line to set the tone for the Lightning with their ability to score and agitate their opponents.
How “Swede” it is. Hedman returned from injury Friday against the Sabres only to play more minutes than any player on either team. And they were quality minutes, too — he had one assist and was plus-one with two shots, a block and almost two minutes of shorthanded time-on-ice that held the Sabres’ power play scoreless. His assist also came on the man advantage, something the Lightning missed while he was on the shelf.
Hedman’s biggest moment came when he ripped a slap shot from the high slot to break a 1-1 tie in Saturday’s game. In an emotional homecoming for him, scoring in front of his fellow Swedes was the cherry on top.
After their win on Saturday, fans at the Ericsson Globe chanted “VICT-OR HED-MAN!”, and as Hedman told Joe Smith of The Athletic, it was tough to put into words.
“Sweden means the world to me, so to be able to come home, play for my team, my home country, it’s something I won’t experience again. I’ll cherish this moment forever.”from “Global Series: How Victor Hedman and the Lightning got their ‘swag back’ in Sweden”, The Athletic — 11/10/19
Related: Hedman Vital to Bolts’ Success
Star players rise to the occasion when their name is called, and Hedman is no different. Without him on their top defensive pair, the Lightning looked much less fluid and structured than they do with him. That’s not to say any of the other Lightning defensemen are bad — that’s just how good Hedman is at what he does. He made the most of his homecoming and was one of the biggest reasons the Lightning won both games.
This one might come as a surprise, but winning faceoffs was a big reason they won their game on Friday. They out-dueled the Sabres in the dot by nearly a seven-to-three margin. No player on the Lightning who took a faceoff was under 50% for the game, and Gourde won all of his draws, according to NHL.com. Brayden Point was at 88%, Anthony Cirelli was at 67% and Steven Stamkos at 57%.
As a team, the Lightning are seventh in the league with a 51.9% faceoff percentage, according to Puckbase. They barely won the faceoff battle on Saturday, winning 51% of the draws, but in many of their losses this season, they were losing upwards of 60% of faceoffs. There’s a strong correlation between winning faceoffs and success in the offensive zone or getting the puck out of the defensive zone, and that rang true while the team was in Sweden.
On Friday, the Lightning played well with the puck and controlled the pace of play. However, out of the gate on Saturday, the Sabres came out and dominated the Lightning in their own zone, getting numerous high-danger chances that could have had a much worse result if it weren’t for strong goaltending from Curtis McElhinney. But, like many times last season, the power play bailed out the Lightning, as did their goaltending, and they had a 2-1 lead in the second period.
Puck management has been an issue for the Lightning so far this season. They haven’t been crisp in their own zone and have turned the puck over to give their opponent grade-A scoring chances. It wasn’t terribly bad, but it was noticeable. They appeared to clean it up in the third period, but it also helps when your team scores goals and gets their confidence back. Credit to the Lightning for making in-game adjustments, but it’s still something the team needs to work on for the future.
Defensive Zone Play
This ties into puck management in part, but the Lightning’s play in their defensive zone was a reason the Sabres made the game on Friday close. Sam Reinhart scored both goals for the Sabres, and on the first, the Bolts turned the puck over behind the net. Luke Schenn chipped the puck around the boards to an open defenseman, he passed to Rasmus Ristolainen, and Reinhart tipped a shot through Andrei Vasilevskiy. If Schenn had better support, the Lightning could have had an odd-man rush from the play.
On the Sabres’ second goal, the Lightning turned the puck over twice and gave Reinhart a great chance from the high slot. The Sabres looked faster and more hungry on the play in part because of how scattered the Lightning looked. That’s been the reason for a lot of the Lightning’s struggles this season, especially on the penalty kill. While their kill was perfect in Sweden, their five-on-five defensive zone play began to lapse on Saturday. But, as they did with their puck management, the Bolts cleaned it up and rode the wave that the fourth line created.
All in all, the positives of this week greatly outweighed the negatives. The Lightning appeared to have found a sparkling fourth line and looked much more structured with Hedman back in the lineup, and they looked like a refreshed team in both games. While they made their share of turnovers and defensive lapses, they didn’t let them linger as they adjusted to fix their mistakes. If they can continue to play a similar style throughout the rest of the season, they should have no problem getting back into a playoff spot.