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The Tampa Bay Lightning at the midpoint

The two-time defending champs are halfway home

Tampa Bay Lightning v Los Angeles Kings Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI via Getty Images

With their win against the Los Angeles Kings earlier this week, the Tampa Bay Lightning have hit the halfway mark of the 2021-22 NHL season. All-in-all, despite some hiccups and injuries along the way it’s been a pretty good first 41 games. They have posted a 27-9-5 record which is good for 59 points and a share of the Atlantic Division lead (okay, technically the Florida Panthers are a few percentage points ahead, but why quibble over minor details). They’re also battling the Panthers, Colorado Avalanche, and Carolina Hurricanes) for the overall lead in the league.

Not bad for a team where it seems like they haven’t really hit their stride yet. The Lightning have managed to put up 27 wins despite two of their biggest offensive players missing significant time. Brayden Point was out for 14 games and Nikita Kucherov was absent for 32. Other key contributors like Anthony Cirelli (5 games) and Ondrej Palat (4 games and counting) have also spent time on the sidelines. Yet, somehow they’ve still managed to keep banking the points.

If you’d told us at the beginning of the season that Sean Day, Darren Raddysh, Max Lagace, Gabriel Fortier, Andrej Sustr, and Riley Nash would have suited up for multiple games for the Bolts we’d probably be a little worried about defending their back-to-back titles. Yet, the team has rolled right along.

In a trend that is reminiscent of their previous two seasons they just don’t get caught in long losing streaks. Their longest streaks this season without wins is three games, which has happened two times. In both of those streaks, they’ve actually sandwiched regulation losses around a shootout loss so they still scrape a point here or there when they’re playing less than optimal.

Over a long season, squeezing as many points out of games as possible is a key to establishing a prime spot for the post season. Only nine times out of the first half of the season have they walked away from a game with zero points. Two of those came in December when their roster was severely compromised by COVID. And by roster, of course we mean Andrei Vasilevskiy.

With as much talent as the Lightning have, they still still rise and fall based on the play of their goaltender. He is a true number one in the sense that whenever he starts, the Lightning are favored to win. It’s not that they just have a shot to win, but they are legitimately the favorite.

A bit of a slow start knocked him down in some of the stats departments over the first half of the season, but he’s still putting up a really, really good year. According to Natural Stat Trick, he is up to 10.39 Goals Saved Above Average at 5v5. Which is good for third in the league for goaltenders who have played more than 750 minutes. His GAA of 1.91 at 5v5 is 5th as his .933 SV%.

There is one area that his performance has dipped a bit year-over-year. His high-danger save percentage is only at .849. That is a pretty big drop off from the .872 he posted in the 2020-21 season. However, based on a quick look at his historical numbers, the .872 seems to be a bit of an outlier and goes to show how insanely good he was last year on dangerous chances from his opponents.

Despite the seemingly constant shuffle of defenders in front of him, the team has actually cut down on the number of high-danger shots Vasy has seen this year. In the 42 games he appeared in last year NST had him facing 274 high danger shots at 5v5. That breaks down to about 6.5 a game. This year, in 32 games, they have him facing 192 which averages out to about 6. Not a huge difference on a game-by-game basis, but it does add up over the season.

The Lightning have dressed 11 different defensemen this year, including two that made their NHL debut (Day and Raddysh) so it is kind of impressive that their goals against hasn’t shot up more than it has from last year. They are currently rolling at 2.78 goals allowed per game, which is in the middle third of the league and about where they were in 2019-20 (2.77). Last season they had a very respectable 2.59 goals against.

Having Victor Hedman on the blueline helps alleviate a lot if issues since you know you can roll him out for 45% of every game and not have to worry about anything. If he isn’t breaking up plays at his own blueline or swatting passes away, he’s probably roaming around the offensive zone setting up the forwards for prime scoring chances.

Will he win another Norris Trophy this year? Who know, but he is definitely in the discussion again after an injury-hampered second half of last year’s shortened regular season. Averaging more than a point a game as defenseman is wildly impressive in today’s NHL and Hedman is making it look easy.

Having to completely rework their bottom two lines from last year may speak to a little of the bump in scoring against (not to mention a few extra empty net goals against early in the season), but it seems they’re buttoning things up on defense. Prior to the 6-4 win against L.A. (in which they were a tad short on defense) they had allowed more than two goals against only six times since the beginning of December and they had COVID-related absences in three of those games.

Offensively, they are just chugging along despite the hits they’ve taken. The Bolts have managed to put together a top-10 offense, averaging 3.39 goals per game despite only one member of their top-six (Alex Killorn) appearing in all 41 games. While Steven Stamkos has been garnering a lot of attention for his season, Killorn is on pace for a career year at age 31. The perennial 40-point man is already up to 37 for the year and his 25 assists are nearing his career high of 32.

His consistency has been remarkable as he hasn’t gone more than two games without recording a point all season. And he hasn’t been relying on the power play to pad his points as he’s only picked up five assists on special teams. He’s really clicked on the line with Anthony Cirelli and Steven Stamkos to give Coach Cooper two really good scoring lines to choose from when he needs some offense.

Speaking of Stamkos. We’re not sure if we can add anything about him that hasn’t been said already this year. The Captain is having a heck of a season and is one of the key reasons the team was not only able to survive without Point and Kucherov, but thrive. He’s put up 48 points in 40 games and is on the cusp of another 20 goal season, which would be his 12th in a Lightning uniform. Could he reach 40 for the first time since 2018-19? Sure, why not.

Having the entire offseason to prepare for the season as opposed to rehab from an injury seems to have rejuvenated his play a bit. It will be interesting to see how the second half goes for him with Kucherov back, especially on the power play. While 86 was out of the line-up teams could cheat to Stammer’s side of the ice, but now they have to respect Kuch’s shot from the opposite side and that should open up more room for Stamkos to operate (not to mention Kucherov’s otherwordly ability to make passes). That 20.5% power play number will likely climb up dramatically over the next couple of months.

Kucherov has returned to the ice and picked up right where he left off in the playoffs. He’s posted 15 points (5 goals, 10 assists) in 9 games and seems to be a goal waiting to happen every time he’s in the offensive zone. Could he post 60 points over the next 40 plus games? Are you going to bet against that?

It isn’t just the top two lines doing their thing. Even while they were figuring out their bottom-six combinations and getting healthy, they still were able to control the important aspects of the game - namely puck possession and quality of offense.

Evolving Hockey

As the chart shows, the Lightning have done an excellent job of limiting expected goals from their opponents while managing to still generate their own. They aren’t sacrificing their offense to keep pucks out of the net. Nor have they sold out their goaltenders in order to score (looking at you Florida and Carolina).

While the School Bus Line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Pat Maroon, and Corey Perry will never reach the offensive potential of the Yanni Gourde line, they are doing what Coach Cooper needs them to do - drive possession. As a unit at 5v5 they have a shot share of 53.01% and an expected goal share of 54.47%. They’ve chipped in 13 goals while only allowing 5. That’s more than most teams get out of their third line.

It seems all of the other forwards, from Mathieu Joseph to Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh have all chipped in when needed. Joseph is one of the best penalty killers on the team, and if he could score on a shorthanded breakaway he would probably have roughly 15 goals at this point. Ross Colton has been steady in his second season - 16 points (5 goals, 11 assists) from your number four center isn’t too shabby.

Is this team as good as last years? No, but the 2020-21 Tampa Bay Lightning were probably one of the best teams in franchise history. This season’s version is still really good and is in line to make a strong defense of their Stanley Cup. Forty-one games into the season, that’s all you can really ask for.