The Pittsburgh Penguins have been an interesting team this year. They lost Sidney Crosby, one of the best players to ever play the game, for an extended period of time. And because they also have one of the other best players of the salary cap era in Evgeni Malkin, they continued to roll. So this was a tough challenge for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Pittsburgh is second in the Metropolitan division and came into the game with the same number of points as the Lightning with one less game played.
The Lightning haven’t played the best hockey since coming off their bye week and the All-Star break, but have managed to find ways to win. A lot of that has to do with the stellar play of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Incidentally, Pittsburgh’s goaltending was also a big reason why they kept doing so well even with Crosby out.
The Lightning started off somewhat tepid, before heating up to close out the second half of the first period scoring two goals. The Penguins answered in the second with Anthony Cirelli striking back 32 seconds later to put the Bolts back up 3-1. The Penguins got within one early in the third period, but the Lightning locked it down and finished it off with an empty net goal to seal the win at 4-2.
With the win last night, Vasilevskiy set a new Lightning franchise record for personal point streak by a goaltender at 17 starts with a 15-0-2 record. That surpassed Nikolai Khabibulin’s 12-0-4, 16 game streak during the 2002-03 season. Additionally, Vasilevskiy picked up an assist on Nikita Kucherov’s empty net goal to go to four assists on the season. This ties the Lightning franchise record set by Corey Schwab in 1998-99 and tied by Ben Bishop in 2014-15. During his 17 game streak, Vasilevskiy has a .930 SV% and has allowed 2.11 goals per game with two shutouts.
According to Evolving-Hockey.com, Vasilevskiy is now at 8.8 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) for the season and is 11th overall in that stat, but is still at -8.16 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Which is... well, way down the list. However, during his 17 game stretch going back to December 17th, he has 10.55 GSAA which is second most in the league in that time and 1.57 GSAx which ranks 15th.
Vasilevskiy’s struggles early in the season were well documented. He didn’t look like himself and the soft goals he was allowing were not helping with the skaters also not playing well in front of him. He just wasn’t making the spectacular saves we have come to expect of him. But in mid-December, something flipped for him and he started to turn it back on.
Curtis McElhinney has also turned it around in the same time span. During his first eight games of the season, he was a -3.8 GSAA and -5.75 GSAx. In the six games he’s gotten during Vasilevskiy’s point streak, McElhinney sports a 3.7 GSAA and 3.43 GSAx. I don’t know if they both figured something out together, or if the team’s play in front of them has changed things for them, but both goaltenders have turned it on and have been going strong since mid-December to go with the team’s improved play.
Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov
The last handful of games, I’ve noticed that Kucherov has been getting smothered a lot more by the opposition. He only managed two shots against the Anaheim Ducks, one against the Vegas Golden Knights, and three last night against Pittsburgh in all situations. The one exception was the San Jose Sharks whom he tore apart getting seven shots on goal on eight shot attempts.
The smothering has been on the power play and at even strength. But this has just opened up the ice more for Stamkos and Point to do their things. They combined for 11 shot attempts last night, eight against Vegas, 13 against San Jose, and eight against Anaheim. Point and Stamkos have combined for four goals and ten points over the past four games. Kucherov is also still finding his way on the score sheet too with three goals and seven points. Kucherov is on a nine-game point stream, Stamkos a seven-game streak, and Point a five-game streak. They’ve been dominating.
The Second Line
Over the summer, I had a discussion with someone on Twitter about how the Lightning should split up their three best forwards. Should you just throw all three out on a line together and go for the high power together? Should you put Kucherov and Stamkos together? Or Kucherov and Point? What was the best combination to get the most out of them and the rest of the top six?
Well for the time being, this top six is working quite nicely. The top line has been producing incredible numbers together. But with all that fire power on the first line, how’s the second line of Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, and Tyler Johnson doing? The answer is just fine. Palat has two goals and six points over a five game point streak. Cirelli has two goals and six points over a five game point streak. Tyler Johnson missed out on the point streak fun failing to record a point in the San Jose game, but has two goals and four points over the past five games. They’re doing just fine indeed.
Blue Line Injuries
The Lightning lost Jan Rutta early in the Vegas Golden Knights game to a lower body injury. A Vegas forward on the forecheck lost an edge and went crashing into Rutta’s feet which caused him to fall down while his feet were pinned to the board. The Lightning followed it up with losing Ryan McDonagh to a shot blocked off the side of his foot on a heavy Evgeni Malkin slapshot last night.
Braydon Coburn drew into the line up because of Rutta’s injury. Coburn stepped right in and looked like he hadn’t been out of the line up at all. He ended up struggling with puck possession later in the game as the Penguins pushed the pace, but looked better than you’d expect from a defenseman that has been in and out of the lineup and hadn’t played in a few weeks. He was getting up into the play and had four shot attempts.
With McDonagh going down, and possibly for more than just a game or two, the Lightning coaching staff and front office are going to have to make a decision. We may hear about that decision as early as today, but possibly not until tomorrow before the game. Luke Schenn is healthy and on the roster and could slot back in on the third pair with Braydon Coburn. If that’s the case, then the call-up would logically be Cameron Gaunce to serve as the seventh defender on the roster.
But one option, and this was an option I opined about when Rutta was injured, is giving Cal Foote a look. It’s hard to imagine he’d be any worse than Schenn at this point. The coaching staff could give him sheltered minutes next to Victor Hedman and see how he performs there. It could even just be a two or three game audition. If he looks out of his element, then they can easily go back to Schenn in the lineup and send Foote back to Syracuse. They could also go with seven defensemen with Schenn and Foote in the line up to further shelter both defenders. It would mean sitting a forward, likely Carter Verhaeghe, to do so.
One upside to going with seven defensemen is that it might be a chance to get Gourde going. The fourth line would have an open spot on either side of the line, or at center, with Mitchell Stephens and Yanni Gourde both being able to move around to accommodate whoever joins them for extra shifts. We thought that perhaps Verhaeghe would get things going after his hat trick against the Vancouver Canucks on January 7th, but he has scored just one goal in the 12 games since.
Going with 11 forwards now would mean giving Gourde an opportunity to get some shifts with Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, Palat, Cirelli, Johnson, and Killorn. Any of them can slot into that line for extra shifts and give them some more offensive juice. Stephens isn’t producing much offensively either, but he’s providing value elsewhere with his faceoff abilities and some penalty killing time.
I know a lot of fans are frustrated with Gourde. And believe me, Gourde is frustrated with Gourde. But here’s the thing, if Gourde wasn’t getting chances, then I’d be really worried about him. He’s still creating chaos. He’s still making things happen. He’s just not getting rewarded for his work. Since the beginning of January, he has the Lightning’s fifth highest shot attempts per 60 at even strength. Stephens and Verhaeghe are right up there with him at 2nd and 4th respectively. Gourde is also 4th in individual expected goals per 60, though Verhaeghe and Stephens rank further down at 8th and 9th respectively in that stat. That line works hard, and they put in the effort. They’ve just gotten some bad luck and some bad breaks that have been keeping them off the score sheet.
For Gourde in particular, it feels like if he gets one goal to go in, that the confidence will be back, and the goals will follow.