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Tampa Bay Lightning Ten Game Report: Don’t look now but they might be good

After thirty games, the Bolts are finally playing well.

Boston Bruins v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning have played thirty games this season. That means more than a third of the season is complete. It also means that we’re due for another ten game report. The first two times we did these reports, the results weren’t great. But lately, the Lightning have been trending back in the right direction even if they haven’t always been rewarded for it on the scoreboard.

As of today, the Lightning are fourth in the Atlantic Division and still technically outside of the playoffs. But they’re just three points behind the second place Buffalo Sabres with three games in hand. So in terms of points percentage, the Lightning are in second place behind Boston. The Bruins have pulled so far ahead of the pack that they’ll be difficult to catch but there’s no reason the Lightning shouldn’t still be able to secure second place by the end of the season.

So with that big picture in mind, let’s take a look at the team, the skaters, and the goalies to see where they stand with about ten days to go before the holiday break.

The team level data in this article comes from Natural Stat Trick. The skater and goalie data is via Evolving Hockey. The 5v5 data is always adjusted for score and venue.

The Team

In this first chart, the bars represent the full season, the orange dots are the last ten games, and the gray dots are the ten games before that.

Looking at the orange dots, we see lots of encouraging signs at 5v5. The team has been good almost everywhere in terms of shot metrics leading to strong shot and expected goal share. The only area where they’ve lagged a bit is in allowing dangerous chances defensively. But they’ve limited the quantity of chances enough to still keep their defensive numbers in good shape overall. This is a big difference from the previous ten games where they played like a middling team both offensively and defensively relying heavily on shooting talent to win games.

Speaking of shooting, this last ten games has been interesting in that the areas where the team has been worst are in shooting and goaltending. That largely explains the lack of results in terms of wins to go with the strong shot metrics. I’m not worried about the shooting. That will rise back to where this team has typically been over the last few years. The goaltending though is an issue. It hasn’t been great all year and we’ll dig more into that later.

On special teams, the power play has continued to look good if not quite as dominant as in the previous ten game stretch. The penalty kill, while looking better recently, hasn’t been great overall during the last ten games. They’re on a hot streak now and hopefully that’s a sign of improvement because before the last few games, they’d been giving up lots of dangerous shots.

The Skaters

The next chart is a heat map that shows how the skaters have performed in some key metrics. Dark blue indicates a strong performance in a metric and dark orange is the opposite. Shot and expected goal impacts are measured using regularized adjusted plus-minus.

Among the forwards, we see mostly what we’d expect. Brayden Point continues to be one of the best forwards in the league. He deserves to be in the early season Hart Trophy conversation again this year and he’s one hot streak away from me writing an article making the case that everyone start paying attention to him in that context.

All the other star forwards continue to put up strong numbers. Steven Stamkos has struggled in terms of play driving but so far, he’s scoring at a rate that compensates for that. Nikita Kucherov isn’t scoring the way he did last year but he’s been much more well-rounded this year posting positive impacts in every aspect of the game. Alex Killorn has posted great numbers in terms of WAR but part of that is due to some fortunate shooting results while he’s been on the ice.

The blue line is a little more complicated. Kevin Shattenkirk continues to be unbelievably good. If he keeps this up, that will be the best value signing of the summer. Victor Hedman is in the Norris conversation again. Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh are both playing up to the level we’ve come to expect from them.

The one skater on the roster who generates some concern for me is Erik Cernak. After a breakout rookie season, he’s not been able to generate the same impact. He’s been below average across the board this year. Part of the team’s success last year was his emergence as a shutdown partner for McDonagh. If he can’t rediscover that form, the Lightning might have to rethink his role on the team at some point this season.

At the bottom of the defensive depth chart, the Lightning have rotated Jan Rutta, Luke Schenn, and Braydon Coburn who is currently injured. Based on their play to this point, Rutta appears to have separated himself from the other two. Geo wrote a piece earlier this week advocating for Cal Foote to get a call up to supplant all three of these options on the third pair. And I agree this might be the time to give him a shot. But if not, I don’t see the case for anyone other than Rutta claiming the sixth defender spot.

The Goalies

The final chart shows how the goalies have performed this season in terms of goals saved above expected. The blue line is Andrei Vasilevskiy and the orange line is Curtis McElhinney.

I wrote in depth last week about the impact of the goalies on the team so far this season. This chart does a good job of showing the problem. Before we get into Vasilevskiy, McElhinney has been fine. He’s been a little above average at 5v5 and a little below in all situations. For a backup, that’s solid play. That means he’s giving the team a chance to win most nights.

But Vasilevskiy, yikes. As of a few games ago, he had the worst goals saved above expected of any goalie in the league. That goes a long way to explaining why the Lightning’s record doesn’t align with their shot metrics.

Fortunately, the last three games have shown a reversal of that trend. He posted his best two games of the season over the last week and has climbed significantly from where he was before those two games. He’s dug himself a big enough hole that even getting back anywhere near average by the end of the season would be an accomplishment. Fortunately, the Lightning don’t need him to be great to win games. They just need him to not be the reason they lose. He’s shown he’s more than capable of that so far in his career and if the last three games are the beginning of a long term trend, that would be great news for the Lightning.

Wrap Up

The Lightning have the statistical profile of a good team and over the last ten games, they’ve played like one of the best teams in the league. They haven’t gotten the results they deserved for their play mostly due to struggles in net.

Over the last few games, that’s started to change and they’ve been able to string together some wins. Because of how mediocre the division has been, the Lightning are still in good shape in terms of the playoffs. If they can continue playing the way they have over the last couple weeks and supplement that with at least average goaltending, they should start to rack up points and begin looking like the team we all expected to see this season.