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Lightning start key stretch of divisional games with dominant performance

Tampa Bay is still on the outside looking in, but this win helps.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In one of their best performances of the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Florida Panthers 6-1 in a match-up where every facet of their game synced at once. From their suffocating offensive pressure forcing the Panthers’ defense to wilt repeatedly, their neutral zone aggression which negated much of Florida’s pace, to Andrei Vasilevskiy managing to brush off a shaky start to provide quality goaltending, and ultimately to the electric Lightning power play that bludgeoned the Panthers into submission. This was a game that evoked the unstoppable force that was the 2018-2019 Lightning team that sailed through the regular season.

Entering Monday night’s tilt, Tampa Bay began one of the most important stretches of their schedule. From December 23rd to January 4th, the Lightning face off against six consecutive divisional opponents: Florida, Montreal, Detroit, Buffalo, Montreal, and Ottawa. That’s twelve points available for the Lightning to get back into the playoff race. Currently Tampa Bay sits 6th in the Atlantic division with 40 points in 35 games. They’re two points behind Montreal (42 points in 37 games) for third place in the division. Buffalo and Florida both sit at 41 points.

In theory, Tampa Bay should be favored in every match-up, but winning the remaining five games of this stretch remains to be seen. Best case, they win the remaining five and push themselves to 50 points before facing off against the Carolina Hurricanes on January 5th. Worst case, last night’s win against the Panthers is all they manage to muster.

If Tampa Bay manages to replicate the way they played against Florida then optimism has to be high. Their first period last night was one of their best opening periods of the season as they blasted a Panthers team that was in no way prepared.

One of the biggest areas Tampa Bay made a concerted effort to improve on was their net front presence. It was evident on every goal Tampa Bay scored in the first period.

Aside from traffic in front of Sergei Bobrovsky, take note of Ondrej Palat and how he makes an impact on each one. He has great net front presence on the first two goals (including an assist on Victor Hedman’s goal), and then recovers a loose puck near the goal line before feeding Mikhail Sergachev to make it 3-0 Tampa Bay. These goals are just a microcosm of Palat’s bounce back season, one where he has 21 points (10 goals 11 assists) through 35 games, which is on pace for 49 points (23 goals 26 assists), the most he’s had since the 2016-2017 season. It isn’t the high mark of his career like the 2014-2015 season (63 points—16 goals 47 assists), but a welcome showing from a player that has battled injuries and inconsistent play for the past couple seasons.

As brilliant as Tampa Bay’s offense was last night, the biggest area of optimism for the Lightning has to be Vasilevskiy’s play. Early on he struggled with some shots that squeaked through him, but the Lightning defense bailed him out of those situations before he settled himself down as the game went on. The only shot that beat him came off a deflection, so, it’s difficult to blame him there. However, given how often Tampa Bay has seen a two-goal lead evaporate this season, it was a welcome sign that Vasilevskiy wasn’t getting beaten on low danger shots or giving up back breaking goals at inopportune times. If Tampa Bay gets this version of Vasilevskiy moving forward they’ll be in good shape.

Still, it remains to be seen if Tampa Bay will capitalize on this opportunity. Both Montreal match-ups will be difficult given how the Canadiens are playing currently, so, those games could be coin flips. Tampa Bay has appeared to have Buffalo’s number this season, and Detroit has been a downright tire fire this year. As for Ottawa, that team has always played Tampa Bay tough even when their roster doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Regardless, Tampa Bay needs to come out of this short stretch of games securing at least eight to ten points to force themselves back into the thick of the playoff race. Sooner or later their games in hand (currently sitting at one to two games) will disappear and they’ll mean nothing if they don’t win them.