The Tampa Bay Lightning have played 41 games this season, which means yes, I’m one game late to writing the ten game report. But in my defense, the 40th game was the front end of a weekend back to back and we all have better things to do on a Sunday than read one of these reports. Conveniently, this means we’re looking at the team’s play after exactly half of the season is passed.
The Lightning currently sit third in the Atlantic Division. A win over the Vancouver Canucks tonight would push them past the Toronto Maple Leafs and into second place with one game in hand. The Bolts have won seven consecutive games but haven’t gained much ground in the standings because the Leafs have won nine of their last eleven games. That could change tonight after the Leafs loss to the Oilers on Monday.
As always we’ll start with a high level view of the team’s performance. In the following 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, the picture is pure optimism. Not a single area of the team’s play recently could be honestly termed a problem. They’ve been outstanding at 5v5 both offensively and defensively. They’ve shot the puck well as they always do and even more importantly, have finally shown some improvement in goaltending.
On special teams, the power play continues to be a weapon. Maybe not quite as dominant as it has been at other times this season but still among the best in the league. The worst we can say about the team in the last ten games is that the penalty kill has been average. And if that’s the biggest problem, that tells us everything we need to know.
Last time we looked at this report, we saw a team headed in the right direction that was slightly underperforming due to some bad shooting luck and questionable goaltending. This time, we see that good play bearing fruit as the shooting has gone back to normal and the goaltending has improved.
Teams don’t usually sustain this kind of play for long stretches. All areas of the game don’t usually click at once like this. But if they continue to play even close to the way they have over the last ten games, the Lightning are going to win a lot of games over the second half of the season.
With a good idea of how the team is playing as a whole, we can now look at the individual skaters. The following chart is a heatmap showing some key measures of skater performance. Offensive and defensive impacts are measured using regularized adjusted plus minus from Evolving Hockey. On this chart, blue means grading well in that statistic and orange is grading poorly.
As usual, the Lightning forward group is full of stars. Brayden Point is in the conversation for the Hart Trophy after the first half of the season. He’s doing everything. He scores at even strength and on the power play, he’s reliable defensively, he drives play offensively. He’s been stellar.
He’s joined by Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Anthony Cirelli as leaders among the forwards in terms of all around contributions. While Kucherov’s scoring has inevitably dropped from last year, he’s playing a more well-rounded game. His play driving has improved over last season and returned to where it was for most of the early part of his career.
Palat’s bounce back is even more pronounced. After dealing with injuries for much of the last couple of seasons, he’s healthy now and looks every bit as good as he did a few years ago. He’s still a legitimate top line NHL winger.
And then Anthony Cirelli. He just keeps getting better. He’s added enough scoring this year to climb into a role as a consistent top six center. He doesn’t quite have the offensive game to put himself into the very top of the class among centers in the NHL but he does everything else so well that he’s going to be a valuable player for a long time.
On defense, Victor Hedman is making a run at another Norris Trophy. Kevin Shattenkirk continues to be so much better than anyone could have expected coming off his struggles in New York. If he keeps this up all season, he’ll be one of the most coveted free agents this summer.
At the back end of the blue line, Jan Rutta has established himself as the most reliable option to take the sixth defender spot. Erik Cernak is still struggling a bit in his second season but his numbers have improved since the last time we looked at this report.
The following chart shows a running total of goals saved above expected for the Lightning goalies. The blue line is Andrei Vasilevskiy and the orange line is Curtis McElhinney.
Easily the Lightning’s biggest issue all season has been goaltending. As we saw in the team chart, they’ve started to improve in that area. That’s due to both goaltenders getting a little bit better in their recent starts. McElhinney has hovered around average all season, which is excellent for a backup. He’s playing like a borderline starter, which is about the best a team should expect from a backup.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has also been better lately. He’s definitely not back to playing the way he did last year and any claims that Tampa’s goaltending problems are resolved are premature. He’s still had some rough games. He hasn’t lost much ground in terms of goals saved above expected lately but he also hasn’t gained any. He’s been about break even. That’s a meaningful and encouraging improvement but it doesn’t put him back in the upper echelon of NHL goalies where he was last season.
Big picture, the two goalies have played about equally recently. They’ve combined to produce results that are about average or maybe just slightly above. For a team with as much offensive talent as the Lightning, that should be enough to win games. A team with Kucherov, Hedman, Point, and Steven Stamkos doesn’t need great goaltending. Average or slightly above will do the job and that’s what McElhinney and Vasilevskiy have combined to provide lately.
Both in terms of shot metrics and results, this most recent stretch of ten games was the Lightning’s best of the season. The seven consecutive wins have positioned them to make a run at hosting a first round playoff series. If they can sustain this level of performance, they could even challenge the Bruins for first in the Atlantic but that would require Boston to cooperate by faltering through their second half.
Fans have been waiting all season to see this version of the team. The last ten games showed they still exist. The question is how much of this we’ll see over rest of the season and how much we’ll see in the playoffs. Because a ten game run in December and January is great. But just as the poor results in November mattered little in the big picture, the same can be said for this recent hot streak.
Failure or success for this team will be determined in the spring and early summer. But at least now we’ve seen a version of the team that could be successful when it matters.