This was one of the toughest weeks the Tampa Bay Lightning have faced this season. They started the week hosting the Buffalo Sabres and defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, then went on the road to face the Washington Capitals. They finished the week against the Carolina Hurricanes, and through it all, they picked up three of a possible eight points.
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However, given the way they played, the Lightning deserved to win at least two of those games, if not all four. They stuck to their game and played with good structure, but they struggled to hold leads and score when it mattered most near the end of the game.
Let’s break down the best and the worst of this week.
Although Nikita Kucherov has been a point-per-game player this year, he has been streaky at times. Through the first 13 games, he had seven games without a point, but he had three multi-point games. Since then, he’s had just one game without a point and 17 points in his last 10 games. He had eight points in the four games this week — including six points in two games — and was playing anywhere from 20 to 22 minutes per game.
In these last three games, Kucherov had 21 shots on goal, more than any other four-game stretch this season. This shows he’s creating time and space for himself, and that opens up space for his teammates as well. Although he only scored on one of those shots, he’s proving why he won the Hart Trophy last season and how he can be a game-changing player on a nightly basis.
Shooting the Puck
The Lightning have had an issue giving up shots and not taking enough to even out the score. However, this week they had at least 30 shots in three of four games, including 38 against the Hurricanes Saturday night. They outshot their opponents in two of the four games this week and were only one shot behind the Sabres. For Lightning fans, it’s nice to see their team shooting more than their opponents — that hasn’t happened much this season.
It’s also worth noting that the Sabres blocked 12 shots, the Hurricanes blocked 28, the Capitals blocked 14 and the Blues blocked 12, so the Lightning are definitely shooting more. Earlier this season and even last year, they were very selective in the shots they took, and that led to some lopsided shot totals that were not in favor of the Lightning. The more they shoot, the more chances they have to score.
As a whole, the Lightning played fairly consistent this week. They hung in with three of the best teams in the league and didn’t try to play a style different from their own. When they went down 2-1 against the Sabres, they didn’t panic but stuck to their guns and made sure they controlled the game.
Although they didn’t win the other three games, they looked much more comfortable on the ice playing to their identity. That wasn’t the case earlier this season as some players tried to do too much themselves, and that led to sloppy play in the neutral and defensive zones. In many ways, the last three games this week could have gone either way, and that’s something the Lightning can build off of for this week.
The Little Things
The biggest downfall for the Lightning this week was their execution with the little things. They took four penalties against the Sabres, a shorthanded goal against the Blues, made a costly turnover against the Capitals and a too many men bench minor against the Hurricanes that gave them a momentum swing. As Joe Smith writes for The Athletic, “These are details that good teams, championship teams, execute” (From ‘Thoughts on measuring-stick week and Lightning’s ‘stock correction’ season’, The Athletic, 12/1/19).
There will be something small in every game the Lightning miss, but the difference this week was the teams they played are going to capitalize on those opportunities. Even the Sabres, after losing an offensive draw, made a nice steal and scored on a breakaway. Limiting small mistakes is something all of the best teams do — look at how the Blues and Capitals played this week — and the Lightning can get there, but it has to be a conscious effort.
Vasilevskiy Still Inconsistent
After three consecutive games with a save percentage better than .930, Andrei Vasilevskiy’s save percentage didn’t crack .900 in both games against the Blues and Capitals. He was strong against the Sabres, stopping all but two shots and all nine on the penalty kill, but he simply has not been a consistent presence in the crease like he was last season.
From the start of November, Vasilevskiy’s save percentage in nine games is .898 — 20 points lower than his career average. He also had eight shutouts two years ago and six last year, but he hasn’t gotten one yet this season.
By the standard Vasilevskiy has set for himself, there are a lot of ugly numbers on his stats sheet. The team needs him to be more consistent in net — that doesn’t mean bailing the team out like he did last year, but making necessary saves to give his team a chance to win.
Rising to the Occasion
Against the Sabres on Monday, the Lightning were down 2-1 and ended up coming back to win 5-2. However, they lost the next three games by one goal, including a third-period collapse against the Capitals. The theme with all of these games was being able to overcome a little adversity during the game. When the Lightning were down and needed a goal, they couldn’t execute this week.
Last year, the Lightning didn’t have to worry about being down a ton because they had elite scoring and goaltending at the same time. But, when they were down, it was obvious they had turned up the heat to create scoring chances. The same kind of pushback is there, but they aren’t executing like they were last season. If the stars of the team can execute — Kucherov, Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point — the rest of the team will have a new-found confidence.
This coming week, the Lightning will travel to Nashville to take on the Predators on Tuesday, then head back to Tampa Bay to host the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. Those are games they need to win, or at least get a point in, because they have another tough four-game week from Dec. 9-14.