To call it panic would be a misnomer, but when the Tampa Bay Lightning stumbled out of the blocks with three losses in their first five games, their performance was met with a certain level of concern. There’s a reason for that, too. The Bolts entered the season as the favorites, possibly even prohibitively so, to win the whole thing. Tampa Bay was the short-odds Stanley Cup contender expected to again conquer the Eastern Conference. The Lightning were then expected to enter the post-season with a Columbus Blue Jackets-sized chip on their shoulder and make amends for the historical playoff defeat suffered last season.
But that hasn’t quite been the story of this season’s Lightning now, has it? After dropping three of their first five, Tampa Bay proceeded to drop three of their next six. Winning streaks have been followed by losing streaks, and, most recently, the Bolts put the brakes on a three-game skid with an overtime victory over the Nashville Predators. For most clubs, that would seem insignificant, the usual ebbs and flows that happen during a campaign. For the Lightning, it was more meaningful. Not once during the 2018-19 regular season did Tampa Bay drop three consecutive games. Heck, only twice during the campaign did they drop two in a row, and that didn’t occur once after the early stages of February.
As one would expect, the Lightning’s inconsistency has taken something of a toll on their spot in the standings. Heading into action Thursday against the visiting – and suddenly streaking – Minnesota Wild, Tampa Bay finds itself on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Through nearly one-third of their season, the Lightning’s 13-9-3 record puts them sixth in the Atlantic Division and a full four points back of the second and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. That they find themselves in such a position on the wrong side of American Thanksgiving might be enough for the subtle hand-wringing that was occurring through the early part of November to turn into some palpable consternation.
Alas, we are here with a message of hope: there’s no reason to worry about these Bolts.
While Tampa Bay is out of a playoff position and in the depths of their division, there are a few things at play that have to be noted. The first, and most obvious, is that their 29 points actually don’t put the Lightning too far out of contention in the Atlantic. To wit, a win Thursday would draw Tampa Bay level with the tied-for-second Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres. If the Montreal Canadiens lose to the visiting Colorado Avalanche – a legitimate possibility given the diametrically opposite directions the two teams are heading – the Bolts would be tied with or ahead of the entire division, save the near league-best Boston Bruins.
Not only that, there’s also a matter of volume at work here. The Lightning are four points out of a wild-card spot, true, but that has plenty to do with the fact they’ve played a league-low 25 games. In fact, the Lightning are picking up points at a rate commensurate with the rest of the Eastern Conference’s playoff contenders. Tampa Bay’s .580 points percentage ranks 12th in the NHL and is better than all but six teams in the East. That’s a 95-point pace. A sizeable step back from last season’s ridiculous 128-point performance? You know it. But 95 points would likely still be enough to put the Lightning in the post-season.
So, with that in mind, maybe the bigger question here isn’t if there’s reason to worry, but why the results aren’t coming at the same rate as they did last season. It’s worth asking, too, because the roster is largely unchanged. Some would say it’s actually improved with the additions of depth winger Patrick Maroon and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Truthfully, there’s no definitive answer. That said, there does appear to be a few things at work, one of which is an adjustment that has been made in the style of play. Last season, the Lightning were by no means a top possession team in the league, but their numbers weren’t all that concerning. The same can’t be said for this campaign. Through 25 games this season, Tampa Bay’s Corsi percentage is down just shy of two percent at 5-on-5 from last season, and, similarly, the Lightning have suffered declines in shots percentage (2.9 percent), goals for percentage (3.4), scoring chance percentage (1.0) and expected goals percentage (0.9).
However, those declines have less to do with giving up more opportunities than they do the Lightning’s own rates of shot and chance generation. In each of the aforementioned categories, the Bolts’ 5-on-5 per-60-minute rates have declined anywhere from 0.8 to 4.3, the latter the largest and appearing in Tampa Bay’s shot-attempts clip. That has, however, been paired with a decline in shot attempts against (0.4), scoring chances against (0.8) and high-danger chances against (0.9) per 60 minutes at five-a-side. It’s that suppression that actually has the Lightning’s high-danger chance percentage at among the league’s best at 53.1 percent. Only six teams have been better. That has helped Tampa Bay to an expected goals percentage of 51.9 percent. That's tied for 10th-best in the NHL.
By no means is this an indication of the Lightning making a wholesale change into a grind-it-out system, but it is one that suggests Tampa Bay has made a conscious effort to be more stifling defensively. That has, in turn, reduced some of the prime offensive opportunities that come the Bolts’ way.
There’s also the matter of the penalty kill, which needs some exploring. The Lightning, though they have done well to stay out of the box, have the seventh-worst penalty kill in the league. That can be blamed on several things, including increased attempts against of all kinds after a season in which Tampa Bay led the league with an 85-percent success rate when down a skater. The greatest shortcoming, however, is the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy when on the PK.
One season after posting a .911 save percentage when shorthanded, Vasilevskiy has managed a meager .854 SP this season. That ranks 36th among the 49 goaltenders with 50 minutes played shorthanded. His minus-1.1 goals-saved above average isn’t glowing, either. Only a dozen of the 50-minute netminders have fared worse. But given his career numbers when down a skater, there's no reason to expect this poor play to last.
Regardless of the numbers, though, the truth about the Lightning is that this is a team too chock full of talent, too skilled in all areas, to be left outside of the post-season picture for all that much longer. Once the big guns truly start firing and once reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy starts to round into form, the expectation will once again be that the Bolts have what it takes to summit the NHL. And if that comes to pass, the early-season bouts of mediocrity will be completely forgotten.
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