From a tale-of-the-tape perspective, Tuesday’s tilt between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames had all the makings of a heavyweight bout. In one corner were the league-leading Lightning, the Atlantic Division’s top dog that is pacing the Presidents’ Trophy race. In the other were the Calgary Flames, nursing back-to-back defeats but still primed to challenge for top spot in the Pacific Division thanks to their powerful attack and dominant possession game.
Well, thank heavens that no one was asking you to reach into your wallet to pay for that one on pay-per-view.
The 6-3 final score saw the Lightning double up the Flames, and if not for a post, a near-miss and a sensational save by Calgary’s David Rittich, Tampa Bay could have had nine. The Lightning controlled the puck for most of the night, they got to prime scoring areas often and tested Rittich repeatedly. The Flames’ offense wasn’t snuffed out, but it was limited, particularly at five-a-side where they mustered just one goal. In the end, what was supposed to be a slugfest between two clubs with legitimate Stanley Cup potential looked more akin to a pack of eighth-grade bullies picking on a kindergarten class.
Should we have really been all that surprised, though? This is what Tampa Bay does, what it has done all season. As they enter the final third of the campaign, the Lightning have dropped only 11 games in regulation and a mere 15 overall. Their goal differential is more than one-third better than that of the next-best club, and with a stunning plus-64 through 57 games, Tampa Bay is on pace to eclipse a 90-goal spread between goals for and goals against. If they manage to do so, it would mark the greatest goal differential since the 2005-06 season when the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings went plus-103 and plus-96, respectively. And it’s getting to the point that one has to wonder if there are any flaws to be found in this Tampa Bay lineup.
Offensively, of course, there’s next to nothing holding the Lightning back. Paced by Nikita Kucherov — his four-point night against the Flames gives him 88 on the season and pushes him six points clear of Patrick Kane for top spot in the league scoring race — Tampa Bay has had the most lethal attack in the league all season. Their 219 goals are nine more than the next-best club, San Jose, and the Lightning are scoring at a rate of nearly one-fifth of a goal per game better than the Sharks. But it’s not just the top-end scoring that is coming through. Altogether, Tampa Bay has eight players with at least 10 goals, from 30-goal men Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos on down to rookies Mathieu Joseph and Anthony Cirelli, who have 13 and 11 tallies on their respective resumes.
What has made the Lightning offense lethal, and allowed for the Josephs and Cirellis to flourish, is that Tampa Bay’s generation on the attack has been among the league’s best. Per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, the Bolts rank seventh in shot attempts (59.2), sixth in shots (32.3), fourth in scoring chances (30.1) and sixth in high-danger chances (11.8). Pair that with the league’s best power play — one that can throw an almost unequalled level of talent over the boards on its top unit — and it’s really no wonder the offense has been so potent.
It’s defensively, however, that Tampa Bay needs some fine tuning. And while some will point to the exceptional penalty kill and the league’s fifth-lowest goals against total as the counterpoint any suggestion that’s the case, the reality is that any defensive deficiencies shown throughout the season have been largely masked, particularly of late, by the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Among goaltenders to play at least 850 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, the Lightning starter has turned in a .927 save percentage and a .28 goals-saved above average, very nearly a top-10 mark in the NHL. And since the beginning of January, Vasilevskiy has raised his play. In 14 games, he’s turned in a .936 SP at five-a-side, the fifth-best mark among the 29 goalies with at least 400 minutes played since the turn of the calendar. Make no mistake that Vasilevskiy has been an integral part of the Lightning’s second-ranked penalty kill, either. No goaltender in the league has a better shorthanded save percentage than his .918 mark. There’s no question Vasilevskiy has been Tampa Bay’s best penalty killer.
Vasilevskiy’s play has been incredibly important, too, because while the Lightning aren’t an out-and-out mess in their own half of the ice, Tampa Bay has been far less limiting than they would like to be, particularly as we approach the post-season. Again measured per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Tampa Bay ranks ninth in shot attempts against (54.7), but fall further down the list in subsequent statistics. The Lightning rank 15th in shots against (30.4), 21st in scoring chances against (26.4) and 10th in high-danger chances against (10.2).
With that in mind, among the best moves the Bolts could make would be to find a more suitable partner for Victor Hedman, one who can drive play far better than Dan Girardi. Though Girardi may be a useful matchup defenseman in a bottom-pairing role, there are better shutdown or stay-at-home options who could skate with Hedman if the Lightning. In order to bring that defenseman aboard, though, Tampa Bay is going to need to be willing to pay the price and then do so without rocking the successful foundation they’ve built throughout this season.
The Death Star was destroyed because one single, solitary weakness was exploited. And for the near-perfect Lightning, it appears Girardi and the depth of the defense is their thermal exhaust port, so to speak. While everything else about Tampa Bay makes them a nearly unstoppable force, it’s that minor tweak on the blueline that could be the only thing standing in the way of turning regular season dominance into Stanley Cup success.