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After turbulent start, the Lightning have arrived as the Stanley Cup contender that was expected

The Lightning spent more time on the outside of the post-season picture looking in than anyone would have predicted, but Tampa Bay is starting to assert itself as an Eastern Conference power once again. But they've arrived at this point in a different fashion than last season.

It was only a matter of time before the Tampa Bay Lightning turned it on. That much we knew. But when the Bolts stumbled out of the gate and rode a rollercoaster up and down the standings through the first two-plus months of the campaign, there was a certain amount of handwringing over the start the pre-season’s odds-on Stanley Cup favorites were having to the campaign.

Around these parts in October, mere games into the season, we talked about why a rocky start might be what’s best for the Lightning. By the end of the opening month, the conversation shifted to one of coach Jon Cooper’s future. In November, it was suggested the Lightning were starting to get their swagger back, which was followed by an early December assertion that even though Tampa Bay remained on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, there was no reason to worry.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that the Lightning have answered any question as to whether or not they would be a true-blue Cup contender this season, and Tampa Bay has done so emphatically. In fact, over the past month, there’s not been a single team in the NHL that has done more to establish themselves as a real threat to win the whole thing.

Since their Dec. 21 loss to the then-and-still league-leading Washington Capitals, the Bolts have pieced together a 12-3-0 record, good for a league-best .800 points percentage, which comes on the strength of a 10-game winning streak, two shutout victories and one assertive statement about the state of this team heading into its all-star break. Last Friday, visiting the Winnipeg Jets on the second half of a back-to-back, the Lightning looked every bit the throwback to last season’s single-season wins record-tying outfit. They were quick, they were efficient and they were lethal, and Tampa Bay beat the absolute daylights out of Winnipeg, skating to 7-1 victory that was among the Bolts' most convincing wins of the season.

As good as the Lightning looked that night, and as good as Cooper’s club has looked for the better part of the past month, it seems there’s something different about this season’s Tampa Bay team. True, a significant amount of their success remains predicated upon the offensive effectiveness of this outfit, which holds true in the fifth-best 3.80 goals per game the Lightning have produced over the past month and the third-best 3.60 goals per game Tampa Bay has scored across the entire season. More impressive, though, has been the way in which these Lightning have defended. Only one team, the surprisingly surging Columbus Blue Jackets, has allowed fewer goals against per game than Tampa Bay’s measly 2.00 over the past month.

That the Lightning have been a more defensively minded unit bears out in the numbers, too. Though last season’s team was undoubtedly more of an offensive juggernaut – Tampa Bay’s 319 goals were the most of any club in the post-lockout era and most by any team since three teams eclipsed that mark during the 1995-96 season – this season’s Bolts have been more stifling. Admittedly, that isn’t reflected in the goals-against column. With 137 goals against at this point, Tampa Bay is on pace to surrender 234 goals by season’s end, a dozen more than last season’s team. The underlying numbers, however, indicate that these Lightning have better insulated the crease, better suppressed shots and chances and further widened the gap between themselves and the opposition.

To paint that picture, it’s important to understand that every under-the-hood metric one could look at pointed to the Bolts as one of the better 5-on-5 teams in the NHL last season. The Lightning’s Corsi percentage (51.6), shots percentage (51.2), and expected goals percentage (52.8) were all top 10 marks. Tampa Bay’s scoring chance percentage (52.0) and high-danger chance percentage (52.5) were right on the cusp, as they sat 11th in both categories.

This season, though, there’s not a single one of those categories in which the Lighting are outside the 10-best clubs in the NHL, and when it comes to the latter three – scoring chances, high-danger chances and expected goals percentage – Tampa Bay is the cream of the NHL crop. By the numbers, the Lightning rank fourth in Corsi percentage (53.4) and eighth in shots percentage (51.4) and first with an 55.9 scoring chance percentage, 55.5 high-danger chance percentage and 55.0 expected goals percentage.

At the heart of that change isn’t the Lightning’s own generation, but Tampa Bay’s ability to prevent opposition opportunities. While it’s a seemingly subtle decrease, the Lightning have allowed 3.8 fewer shot attempts against, 1.2 fewer shots against, 3.0 fewer scoring chances against, 1 fewer high-danger chances against per 60 minutes at five-a-side. Compared to the rest of the NHL, the Lightning rank fourth in shot attempts against, ninth in shots against, third in scoring chances against, fifth in high-danger chances against and fourth in expected goals against per 60 minutes. And that, despite almost across-the-board declines in generation for the Bolts, has resulted in the notable increases in Tampa Bay’s controlling of play, which has now started to manifest itself in the Lightning’s steady climbing of the standings.

What does it mean come the post-season? Well, if last season’s Lightning taught us anything, it’s that regular season dominance means absolutely zip, zero, zilch when the games matter most. But Tampa Bay appears to be as well equipped this season – and given the defensive prowess they've showcased, maybe even more so – to fight its way into the NHL's winner’s circle. That’s what was expected of the Lightning this season, and at long last they appear to have arrived as the contenders they were believed to be.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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