Last night’s victory over the Montreal Canadiens extended Tampa Bay’s season long winning streak to five, and their divisional winning streak to 13. In a season that hasn’t been as dominant as expected, the one area where the Tampa Bay Lightning have been dominant is within their own division. Currently, they’re 15-2-0 within the Atlantic, and it’s helped keep them afloat as they’ve managed to find more consistency after a rough start to the season.
Tampa Bay finally managed to have a strong first period after faltering the past few games and their star goaltender out-dueled another. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 38 save performance was one the Lightning will gladly take. He stole the show with some marvelous saves, none more so than this.
This didn't even get a replay on the Canadian broadcast. Holy smokes. Reading the rolling puck shot and lifting the pad to meet it, risking (if he was wrong) getting beat along the ice? Legend. https://t.co/TAgztTXH1x— Paul Campbell (@WayToGoPaul) January 3, 2020
Now, yes, Tampa Bay was “outplayed” by Montreal in this game in terms of possession (70-40 shot attempts overall for Montreal, and 52-38 at even strength). However, Tampa Bay did a surprisingly good job limiting their chances in the slot.
Conversely, Tampa Bay spent quite a lot of time in Montreal’s slot area last night and a lot of praise has to be thrown at Carey Price for having an exceptional game. Except for, you know, his one huge blunder of the night.
Moving on, the way Tampa Bay has played over the past two months has been encouraging. They’ve carried play like one of the best teams in the league, and they’ve also done well limiting their chances against. The one area that Tampa Bay has struggled at is goaltending, and if last night’s performance is an indication moving forward, then the rest of the NHL should start worrying.
Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn’t been as sharp as anyone, including himself, would’ve expected this season. But December did showcase his best month of the season in regards to quality starts. He posted a save percentage of .920 or higher in six games this month, which is the best of the season for him. Now, to counter this his overall save percentage for December is .903 due to some rather ugly performances (Minnesota, Ottawa, Washington, and the first Montreal match-up). But you have to take the good with the bad and hope for the best. Especially when the team in front of him is playing well.
As you can see from the above chart, Vasilevskiy hasn’t seen an especially difficult workload this season. Yet, he’s provided poor results from it. Tampa Bay has managed to keep itself alive due to how the rest of the team has played, but, like we’ve mentioned before this season, Vasilevskiy has struggled mightily.
Team stats heatmap— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 3, 2020
I'll stop doing this after today but look at TBL -- great indicators everywhere /and/ their blue in RvsX suggests that their goal differential should improve going forward too. Great with the expectation to get better. Wowzers. pic.twitter.com/dlkdgx1kMz
This should worry the rest of the NHL. If Tampa Bay improves even more moving forward, especially in net (which is something that should happen given Vasilevskiy’s history), then they could return to their dominant self from last season. That would be a welcome change for a team that has historically started off rather well and then slumped after the All-Star break (especially over the past two seasons).
Another thing to take from the second chart is Tampa Bay’s xGA/60 and their actual GA/60. Their xGA is fantastic, whereas their actual GA isn’t as impressive. This also points the finger at inconsistent goaltending. This isn’t to pile on even more, but there seems to be a disconnect among some when it comes to the Lightning’s play this season.
"Defense"— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 3, 2020
WPG plays defense like CHI.
EDM like FLA and DET.
TOR like OTT and PHI.
CAR like VGK and MTL.
LAK like NSH.
NYI like STL, ARI, and COL.
SJS like defense isn't a thing. pic.twitter.com/Mb74g7MqEA
One of the best offenses in the league, and a defensively strong team that has had some unfortunate results. Is Tampa Bay prone to blowing their coverage at times? Yes, absolutely, but find me a team that doesn’t have those issues and I’ll find you a team that went 82-0-0. Are they areas that Tampa Bay can improve on? Again, absolutely, specifically in the micro level of decision making like I annotated earlier in the season.
Even with those issues in their own end at times, their pace and style has them on an upward trend, and if their goaltending can finally round into form like it was expected to, then it’s not out of the question that Tampa Bay could come storming for the top spot in the division. They’re only three points behind Toronto for second (with three games in hand) and nine points behind Boston (who has gone 4-1-5 over their last ten and has a severe lack of depth scoring outside of their top line).
The issue lies in a schedule that isn’t going to be kind to them moving forward, and the Florida Panthers just waiting for one of the top three teams in the division to falter (one point behind Tampa Bay at the moment). The Lightning will play nine games in the next 15 days before the All-Star break with six being on the road, and three back-to-backs squeezed in as well. After the All-Star break, the Lightning still have a long road toward the end of the season. Hopefully, they can keep their winning streak going to help mitigate any bad stretches down the road (it’s hockey, they will go on a two-three game losing streak at some point again).