With last night’s overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche, the Lightning set a new franchise record for consecutive victories putting their eleventh in a row in the right side of the ledger. Winning 4-3 on the road in overtime against a good team is always an accomplishment, especially in the mountain air in Denver, but last night was not a particularly impressive for the Bolts. In fact, it was one of their weaker performances during this stretch.
The Avalanche were the better team for most of the night and ended the game with an expected goal share of about 57%. That’s good enough to win most nights. But the Lightning got good goaltending from Curtis McElhinney and finished the chances they generated at the offensive end. That was enough to steal the victory and seal the new franchise record.
That got me wondering how often during this win streak have the Lightning needed to steal games as opposed to outplaying their opponents in terms of shot metrics. The following plot shows four metrics for all eleven games in the streak: goal differential, expected goal differential, goals scored above expected, and goals saved above expected. All the data here is all situations and comes from Evolving Hockey using their game log tool.
To start with, the Lightning have a positive goal differential in every game. We should certainly hope that would be the case since they won every game in this chart. If we saw a negative goal differential here, we’d have an obvious problem with our data.
Moving on to expected goal differential, the Lightning have played well during this stretch. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone watching the team. That said, they haven’t dominated the xG battle during all of these games. Four times during this eleven game stretch, they posted a negative expected goal differential meaning that if they got average shooting and goaltending, they would be expected to lose the game. Those opponents were Anaheim, Columbus, the second Pittsburgh game, and last night’s game against Colorado.
To start, we can discard the Pittsburgh game because the xG totals were close enough to make that outcome a 50/50 proposition. It came down to shooting and goaltending. On that night, Andrei Vasilevskiy stole the show. The shooters didn’t help him much offensively but he didn’t need it. He had one of his best games of the year and secured the win despite the mediocre play in front of him.
But the other three games on our list were nights where the Lightning’s opposition outplayed them. So that’s three nights in this eleven game stretch where the goaltending and shooting has had to compensate for the team being below water in shot metrics.
Against Anaheim, the offensive firepower took over with some support from the goaltending. Against Columbus, the shooting talent did most of the work. And against Colorado last night, it again required the combination of a good performance in net with good shooting to steal the win.
In aggregate, the Lightning have played plenty well enough to be deserving of the win streak. They’ve had to steal a couple of games but that’s to be expected. Good teams win games in multiple ways. The most sustainable way is to outplay your opponents to generate more shots and expected goals. But being an elite NHL team mean having the high end talent to steal games either with shooting or goaltending on occasion. During this recent stretch, the Lightning have had both.
For most of the season, the Bolts have posted strong shot metrics. They’ve also kept up their shooting percentage just as they have during most of Jon Cooper’s tenure as head coach. The inconsistency in the early part of the season was largely due to the play in net. Any team that gets the combination of controlling play, shooting, and goaltending over a long stretch will be difficult to beat because even if one of those areas is just average on a given night, the other two will usually be good enough to give the team a chance to win.
The challenge in the NHL is that teams rarely get consistently good performances in all three of those areas. That’s mostly due to the inherent variance in the nature of hockey but also partially due to the parity imposed by the salary cap and the draft.
This winning streak is an example of what happens when all three parts of the game are clicking at the same time. The only question is whether the Lightning can find this level of play when it matters.