Why the Lightning’s Unbalanced Schedule Matters

Steven Stamkos remarked recently (via tweet from @TBLightning) that during “the second half of the season we’re at home a lot. We love playing in front of our home fans & we usually play well.”

It was no idle observation, Stamkos put his finger on something statistically significant. The Tampa Bay Lightning will play far more on home ice in the second half of the 2011-12 campaign than they did in the first, and based on their point-percentage at home, this will affect the standings in the NHL’s tight Eastern Conference.

Tampa’s Tilted Performance

Due to building renovations, the Lightning were forced to begin the season with a five-game road trip, and months later the schedule hasn’t evened out yet. As of January 2, the Lightning had played 21 road games and only 16 home games (the second fewest in the 30-team league). Once the team returns from their current road trip, 25 of the Bolts’ remaining 42 games will be played at the newly renamed Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Imbalanced schedules like this are common in the NHL; with all the variables in play it is a minor miracle that the schedule comes together at all.

But what makes this imbalance significant for the Lightning is the dramatic difference between how the team plays in their dark jerseys versus their away-whites.

After 21 road games, the Bolts have scored 46 goals (2.19/game) and allowed a league-worst 75 goals against (3.57/game). These totals combine for the worst road-goals for/against ratio in the NHL. By contrast, the 16 home games have generated 52 goals (3.25/game) and 43 goals against (2.69/game).

Most importantly, the Lightning are 11-5 at home, but only 6-12-3 on the road. That means that when the play at home, the Lightning’s .688 point percentage is as good as the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks. But on the road, the Bolts’ miserable .333 point percentage lines up with the basement-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets. With the exception of the Edmonton Oilers, with their mercurial teenagers, no other team has anything close to this kind of disparity between their records.

Could it be the white jersey? Pavel Kubina and the Tampa Bay Lightning allow far more goals when players in other teams’ buildings. (Andy Martin Jr.)

Reasons for the Road Difficulties

The Bolts must play better defense and this need has been a theme that the Tampa Bay coaching staff and media commentators have returned to time and time again.

Goaltending has been been repeatedly called out as a problem by fans and experts. Adam Proteau of The Hockey News recently concluded that Tampa will continue suffer “until Roloson turns his awful season around – or another netminder is acquired.” But has the goaltending been worse on the road?

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender numbers as of January 2, 2012

Garon has clearly been the better stopper, and his numbers have been demonstrably better at home. But what’s even more interesting is the shot differential – the Bolts have given up far more shots on the road than at home. Giving up too many shot has been a problem for the Bolts early in the season, and it remains a problem on the road.

Steve Slowinski at SBNation.com, argues that while the goalies must accept a large share of the blame, it is Tampa’s defense that is the key problem. “Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina have been relied upon considerably more than in the past, but they appear to be over-matched facing tougher opponents”, said Slowinski. “In particular, Clark seems in over his head against the tougher opponents, and he’s not nearly as effective on defense when he doesn’t have Hedman around to pick up the slack.”

Slowinski also points the finger to the defensive efforts of the Lightning’s special teams. “The Bolts have been terrible this season at generating shots on the power play, and they’re allowing the most shorthanded shots against of any team in the NHL. Also, they are allowing considerably more shots against on the penalty kill, falling from the 4th best PK last season to the 20th best this year.”

“I’m going to church, going to light up some candles.” Guy Boucher commenting on Victor Hedman’s concussion

Injuries have taken their toll on the blueline, beginning with Mattias’ Ohlund’s knee surgeries that have kept him out of the lineup all season.

Most recently, Victor Hedman has been diagnosed with a concussion and is out of the Bolt’s lineup indefinitely.

“I’m going to church, going to light up some candles,” head coach Guy Boucher remarked on the Hedman situation. “Hopefully it’s not too long. He’s a good player and we want him on the ice, but we want to be smart and are going to take the time that we need.”

Despite these challenges the Lightning have played well at home recently, winning all three games of their recent homestand. With the team headed to Toronto to kick off another series on the road, it will be interesting to see if the Bolts’ momentum can survive the trip north.

The Road Ahead

The best news for Tampa Bay fans may be that after getting so many road games out of the way early on, they can watch their team harvest the benefits in the stretch.

As a result of the unbalanced schedule, the Bolts have several prolonged sets of homes games remaining. The longest of these stays is a seven-game set running from March 10-24. In fact, only five of their 12 games between February 28 and April 2 are outside the Forum.

Considering the Bolts’ superior point percentage at home, the Lightning could be generating bagfuls of points late in the season.

Even if this year’s campaign hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, the Lightning may yet still make life exciting for their believers, not to mention very uncomfortable for those teams that had hoped that the last had been heard from the Lightning for 2011-12.