Coming into this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning had something to prove. Off the back of a 62 win season, and won the President’s Trophy, they looked to be cup favorites. For once, it looked like they might finally break through the glass ceiling and win their first cup since 2004. Unfortunately, they were embarrassingly swept by the Artemi Panarin lead Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Now, they’re back and hopefully for Lightning fans – with a chip on their shoulders. Let’s see why it’s possible this might actually be the team to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup back to Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Lightning Forward Depth
Tampa has become known for having a high-powered offense. With stars like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov at the forefront, their forward group is sure to play a factor in the post-season. As of July 29, their forward lines (according to daily faceoff) look like this:
Line 1: Stamkos-Point-Kucherov
Line 2: Palat-Cirelli-Killorn
Line 3: Goodrow-Johnson-Coleman
Line 4: Maroon-Stephens-Paquette
As you can see, they have adequate scoring threats on every line and solid defensive threats as well. This is especially true as you move down the line-up. It also explains why they consistently have positive goal differentials, finishing first in the league this season. Not only did they finish first in goal differential, but they were also 4th in C/60 (Corsi per 60 minutes) and 3rd in xG/60 (expected goals per 60 minutes) respectively.
Before you tune out, all these stats mean is they take the majority of the shot attempts in a game and are able to get them off in high danger areas, more often than the other team on a consistent basis. I think you’d agree, getting more chances at the lottery with increased odds, probably puts you at an advantage over your opponent.
That being said, they made key additions at the deadline that never got a chance to make a tangible impact. They acquired Blake Coleman, who has been a premier defensive forward since he came into the league, allowing incredibly low-danger shots when he’s on the ice. He accomplishes this, all while not being an offensive black hole while he’s on the ice either. He will surely be a key depth player for the Lightning in this run.
The other deadline acquisition up-front was Barclay Goodrow. If you looked at what the Lightning gave up to get him, you’d think he was an amazing player and you’d be wrong. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring value. Over his career, he’s been able to chip in offensively at times as well as being a heavy-hitting depth player. Over the past two seasons, he’s accumulated 287 hits in only 152 games. That stat is much more mind-blowing than the 43 points he’s scored over that same time. As I said, his value comes more in the form of toughness than his scoring touch and he should be able to deliver on the latter for sure.
Tampa Bay Lightning Defensive Core
As I said previously, the Lightning have a reputation of being a high-flying offensively talented team. This is true but that’s not all they’ve been able to accomplish. The team has a stacked defensive group too and they shouldn’t be painted with such a narrow brush. Heading into their round-robin matchups here are their defensive pairings:
Pairing 1: Hedman-Rutta
Pairing 2: McDonagh-Cernak
Pairing 3: Sergachev-Shattenkirk
One thing that stands out right away, is the balance in their pairings. Rather than have a stacked top-4 and a more pedestrian bottom pairing, they’ve opted to spread the wealth around. This allows them to consistently expect good performances regardless of what pairing is on the ice at a given time. Additionally, they are able to elevate the play of the lesser defensive partner by sticking them with elite talents like Victor Hedman or Ryan McDonagh.
Remember those stats I brought up earlier? As much as they can be used for offensive purposes, they can also be used for defensive purposes. Tampa ranking higher in those categories means that not only are they getting more shot attempts and higher danger chances each game, they’re also allowing less attempts and lower danger chances as well. For example, this season in CA/60 (Corsi against per 60 minutes) and xGA/60 (expected goals against per 60 minutes) they rank 2nd and 4th respectively. This, added with them leading in goal differential shows that not only are they a high-powered offensive team, but they’re also a solid team in the defensive end as well.
The Lightning are a very solid team from their forwards to defense and even between the pipes. It should come as no surprise that reigning Vezina champion and current Vezina nominee, Andrei Vasilevskiy will be the starter come playoff time. Over his career, he boasts a .919% save percentage in the regular season but is only a .912% in the post-season.
Luckily, if things do start to get dicey in net they have Curtis McElhinney as a back-up. In his first season with the Lightning, McElhinney had a .906% save percentage over 18 starts. This may not inject much confidence, but his .930% in last year’s playoffs with Carolina should definitely make fans breathe a sigh of relief if he ever needs to take over the reins.
Even-strength hockey is very important, you usually play at 5v5 for the vast majority of any hockey game. However, special teams can play a big role in how well your team performs in the post-season. Lightning fans may remember, in the four games of last season’s first-round exit, they only scored once. In a time of the year where the referees tend to put their whistles away, it makes every opportunity more valuable.
This season during the man-advantage, Tampa capitalized on 23.1% of their opportunities, good enough for 5th in the league. It’s a very good placement regardless, but the real silver lining to this stat, three of the four teams in front of them are Western Conference teams. Why does this matter? It limits the chances of them having to face-off against another team who may have a more lethal power play than themselves. This is important because…
The Lightning penalty kill was nowhere near as good as their power play. Although the team holds a respectable 81.4% success rate on the PK — Only 4.3% lower than the first-place team. They sit 14th in the league, behind six eastern conference teams that are playing in the 24-team play-in format. Although it is not the end of the world, this greatly increases the chance they’ll play against a team that has a better penalty kill than their own.
As long as the Lightning can outperform their opposition at even strength, they should be able to soften the potential blow from a special teams battle. That being said, they still have a very lethal power-play and I expect them to be able to succeed.
Remember from earlier, when I brought up the lightning’s advanced metrics and why it bodes well for them? Well, the teams that beat them in those categories are Montreal, Vegas, and Carolina. This is good because they likely won’t have to face Montreal at all. If they face Carolina, it will come farther down the road. Lastly, Vegas wouldn’t be an issue unless both teams make the Cup Finals. Although not impossible, considering how many teams have a legitimate shot at making it past the play-in round, the chances are slim.
In recent years, we’ve seen Cup champions who have lost numerous times in the post-season. Pittsburgh won in 2009 and then they spent seven years as perennial cup contenders before finally winning again, twice! Washington, after spending nearly 15 years as a powerhouse, finally won in 2018. Then most recently St. Louis won in dramatic fashion, going from the last place team half-way through the season to cup champions by June. Before that, they constantly failed in the playoffs, poised to finally break through until finally, they did. Could this trend continue Lightning?
My prediction: The Lightning go 2-1 in the round-robin. Then go on to battle through the next 4 rounds before finally lifting Lord Stanley’s cup.
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