Lost in much of the talk surrounding Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin was the fact that for seven weeks — from Nov. 23 to Jan. 9 — the defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t holding down a post-season position.
Whether or not you want to blame it on the distractions surrounding the club or point to injuries the Lightning have had to deal with, for the better part of the season Tampa Bay has been outside of the playoff picture looking in. No one expected an up-and-coming squad like Tampa Bay to take a step back, but for 48 days the Lightning scratched and clawed their way to getting back into the Atlantic Division race. It was an overtime win over the Vancouver Canucks that finally got the Lightning back into a playoff spot.
That victory was Tampa Bay’s second-straight, and they’ve won their past five games by a combined score of 18-9. Over that time, the Lightning have gone from outside the wild-card race to third place in the Atlantic. They’re nipping at the heels of the second-place Detroit Red Wings while chasing down the first-place Florida Panthers. And while a lot can happen between now and the post-season, the Lightning might be able to sneak into the playoffs and again become a post-season juggernaut.
Goaltender Ben Bishop has been one of the biggest reasons for Tampa Bay’s ability to get back into the race. The 29-year-old is often overlooked with the likes of Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman on the Lightning roster, but Bishop has been tremendous for the Lightning. In fact, he’s well on his way to posting the best numbers of his career and it wouldn’t be wrong were he to warrant some Vezina Trophy consideration.
Through 35 games, Bishop’s record is only 18-13-3, but he has a sparkling 1.97 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and has two shutouts. Bishop’s play is even more impressive at 5-on-5. Of the 27 goaltenders to play at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Bishop ranks eighth with a .936 SP. He’s only a few saves away from seventh spot, currently held by Marc-Andre Fleury, and he’s one or two good games away from eclipsing Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider, Steve Mason and Braden Holtby.
Bishop’s role in Tampa Bay is often overlooked because the Lightning have been the highest scoring team in the league since the lockout-shortened season began. He’s been crucial to his team’s success this season, however, as the Lightning offense ranks 15th this season at 2.60 goals per game.
Don’t go thinking scoring in Tampa Bay has dried up, though, and their goals per game might be a bit misleading. There were some offensive struggles through November and into December, but the Lightning offense is finally starting to hit its stride, it appears. Since the middle of December, Tampa Bay has scored 45 goals, the fifth-most of any team in the league, and have scored 3.21 goals per game since Dec. 15.
It’s not surprising that the Lightning offense would heat up given that they have been one of the best possession teams in the league this season. At 5-on-5, Tampa Bay has a shot attempts for percentage of 52.1 percent. That’s the seventh-best mark in the league, and the Lightning are starting exactly one-third of their 5-on-5 shifts in the opposition zone. Possession doesn’t always turn into offensive outpouring — ask the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks — but a team with firepower like the Lightning can turn that into goals. Stamkos has four points and seven goals in his past seven games, while Johnson, Palat and Kucherov — though not on a line together — have combined for 13 points during the current five-game winning streak.
One concern for teams that heat up is always that their play is unsustainable. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Tampa Bay. Generally speaking, combined shooting percentage and save percentage, known as PDO, can be a good indicator of whether or not a run of play is unsustainable. Teams will usually fluctuate throughout the season but land around 100 for the campaign. Too high or too low, and a team is set to level off. That in mind, it’s worth noting the Lightning have a PDO of 101.1 since Jan. 1. A significant drop off in play shouldn’t really be expected.
There are still big decisions to be made in Tampa Bay by GM Steve Yzerman. He must decide what to do with impending free-agent Stamkos, how to proceed with Drouin and what, if anything, he wants to add as the post-season nears. But as a whole, the team that Yzerman has built and Cooper is leading looks to finally be coming together and rounding into fine form as the midway mark of the season passes and the playoffs approach.
It’s far too early to say that this Lightning team has all the makings of a club headed back to the Stanley Cup final, but coach Jon Cooper’s squad has been playing terrific hockey all season. Even though it took so long to get into a playoff spot, the play of Bishop, the ever-improving offense and ability to control possession give real reason to believe this Tampa Bay team has all the ability to make another deep post-season run.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)