It's getting to be that time of year, again, when every game feels like the most important game and every shift feels like the most important shift of the year. This year, the Lightning have made the playoffs after a two-year absence and every decision, every mistake, every missed opportunity comes with an emotional component. It's really easy to get caught up in the moment to moment anxieties that come with playoff aspirations.
But just how bad have the Lightning's recent struggles really been? When we put them in larger context, what's the story? Is this a club that's backing its way into the first round? Let's look at some of the underlying numbers to get a clearer picture of the recent trends in how the Lightning have been doing recently.
First off we have the Lightning's game by game fenwick-for percent at close from extraskater.com (notations added).
The yellow section was before Steven Stamkos's injury. The circled game is November 11, when he got injured. Gray is while Stamkos was out and green is when Stamkos was back -- which was after Martin St. Louis left. (St. Louis's last Lightning game was March 4; Stamkos's return was March 6.)
It's hard to draw strong conclusions from this, but it suggests two things. First, the Lightning played their best hockey in December, a period of time where they always controlled the puck more than their opponents. And second, things now aren't as bad as they were in either January or October. However, they're not great, either. Basically, since March 19, the team has been at best treading water in terms of shot attempt differentials.
The question then becomes where the biggest problems lie. Offense? Defense? Goaltending? All of the above?
Since February 27, the first game after the end of the Olympic break, the Lightning's fenwick against (all 5v5) has been going down very slightly. Unfortunately, their fenwick for hasn't been going up much. The result is a convergence of the two lines. Naturally, you want the FF (blue) above the FA (red) as often as possible. Ideally, FF is above 30 and FA is below 30.
In fact, things don't look so bad when you look at trends that take all 5v5 situations into account. The following chart shows the Lightning's rolling 5-game FF% considering all 5v5 play, regardless of the score:
And it seems that things are, sort of, looking up. Especially when compared to the close chart:
This suggest that in terms of shot attempts, the Lightning are taking advantage of score effects rather than controlling play before the score gets out of hand. However, in very recent games, not much time has been spent at close, and this puts a lot more weight on smaller portions of the game.
Zooming back out to look at the bigger picture again, we can see that what's happening recently is part of a larger pattern for the season. Early on, about a quarter of Lightning games were what some might call "stinkers," possession-wise. The question was whether the early inconsistency was anomalous or the domination of late November and early December was. Which version of this team was the "real" one? We have enough data now to reconsider the matter.
The green vertical line was St. Louis's last game and the red vertical line was Stamkos's return.
It's fairly clear that the December peak was more unusual than the up and down pattern we're seeing now. I'd go so far as to say that this kind of play is much more "typical" of the Lightning than that December stretch.Naturally, everyone would prefer it to be otherwise. And the fact is that the Bolts have shown that they can be a dominant shooting team when the circumstances are right. They need to get back to that if they hope to make real noise in the playoffs. Otherwise this team will be out in the first round as pretty much every observer has predicted.
There is one more aspect to consider: shooting and save percentages. Since Feb 27, the Lightning have seen a downward trend in both shooting and save percentages.
Some of this change is natural fluctuation in these stats, but there is no question that these two aspects of the game can have enormous effect on outcomes. For the entire season the Lightning are sitting at a cool 100.7 PDO at close, as earlier hot streaks (especially in goaltending) have regressed to or below league average. But the Bolts will live or die on Ben Bishop's save percentage in the playoffs. Because I'm not seeing a huge jump in scoring rates whether the Lightning are facing Carey Price or Tuukka Rask.
All data is taken from extraskater.com.