A look back at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s December

That was a good month

Early in the season, back when the Tampa Bay Lightning were scuffling along a little, head coach Jon Cooper spoke about the importance of getting better as the season progressed. In essence, making each day better than the one before. It hasn’t been a straight day-to-day progression, but the 2022-23 Lightning have been improving month-over-month and December was by far their best.

First the numbers:

December Stats

NHL Rank1596
Goals For ( Per Game)3.11 (19th)3.69 (6th)3.77 (5th)
Goals Against (Per Game)3.11 (18th)3.23 (16th)2.38 (3rd)
Power Play23.5% (13th)32% (3rd)25.6% (10th)
Penalty Kill80.7% (13th)74.5% (21st)94.3% (1st)
Shots (Per Game)30.9 (19th)31.3 (17th)33.3 (7th)
Shots Allowed (Per Game)32.2 (16th)30.2 (21st)31.4 (19th)
Following stats are at 5v5
xGF/602.74 (15th)2.91 (4th)3.15 (2nd)
xGA/602.75 (18th)2.53 (18th)2.46 (12th)
SCF/6032.37 (26th)32.87 (5th)34.35 (2nd)
SCA/6030.65 (26th)29.78 (10th)26.71 (10th)
High Danger Chances/6013.67 (27th)14.99 (1st)17.18 (1st)
High Danger Chances Against/6012.09 (19th)11.59 (17th)10.38 (8th)
Shooting Percentage8.70% (15th)8.75% (11th)9.25% (11th)

As you can see, the Lightning as a team maintained or improved in just about every category listed except for the power play. While that dipped just a bit, a 25.6% success rate is more than acceptable over a sustained period of time.

While they pretty scored about as often as they did in November, there was a noticeable dip in goals allowed as they shaved almost a full goal off of their month-over-month number. There is a direct correlation between that number and their wildly unsustainable 94.3% kill rate shorthanded. In both November and December, Natural Stat Trick has them allowing 25 goals at 5v5 play. However in December they allowed only 2 (!) goals shorthanded as opposed to 12 in November.

That being said, they did trim some of the chances against at 5v5 during the month. It wasn’t anything drastic, but their defensive game is still a work in progress. With the blueline mostly healthy and the addition of Anthony Cirelli, that should be a trend that continues in January and throughout the year (especially if Andrei Vasilevskiy gets over the flu).

As for the standings, they did pick up 3 points on the Toronto Maple Leafs throughout December, narrowing the gap between second and third place in the Atlantic Division. Boston was the only divisional team ahead of them in points for the month as they banked  22 points to the Lightning’s 20. Chances are the Bolts aren’t catching them, but it’s nice that they were able to maintain with them while putting some distance between the third spot and the wild card. As bunched up as the Eastern Conference is right now, there is no need to get into that quagmire.

As a quick aside, the Washington Capitals went 11-2-2 in the month, but couldn’t gain much ground in the Metro because the Carolina Hurricanes went 12-0-1. It feels like they are going to be like the Atlantic was last year with several teams topping the 100 point mark. It also appears that all of the teams that qualify for the playoffs in the East are on pace to top 100 points (even if the New Jersey Devils continue their free fall).

While the penalty kill deserves a lot of credit for the Lightning’s positive defensive swing, the biggest factor was the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy. As we’ve mentioned in the last two recaps, his play early in the season was perfectly fine. In December he was back to the Andrei Vasilevskiy who could steal points for his team. He led the league in Goals Saved Above Expectation at 12.22, a full goal more than Juuse Saros who was in second place. His .946 SV% was tops in the league as well while Pyotr Kochetkov’s 1.63 GAA edged Vasilevskiy’s 1.69 (although in 160 fewer minutes).

As impressive as the numbers were the eye test also showed that Vasy had found his groove again. Throughout parts of October and November it looked like he was fighting the puck a little and his movements were a little disjointed. When he is on his game, there is a almost a disdain in the way he makes saves. His movements are so efficient that it’s like he’s an elephant casually swatting at a gnat. That was the Vasilevskiy we saw in December.

In the 10 games he played, he allowed just 1 or 2 goals in 8 of them and posted positive GSAx in 9 of them. Sadly, he didn’t pick up any shutouts, but there were several that might as well have been.

Brian Elliott was solid in his 3 starts, posting a 2-1 record with a .911 SV% and 2.69 GAA. He allowed 8 goals on an expected goals of 7.94. Had he not faltered a bit in his final game of the year (a 7-4 loss to the Red Wings) his numbers would have been even better.

Offensively, it was the top line leading the way once again. as Brayden Point, Brandon Hagel, and Nikita Kucherov combined for 13 goals, a 55.53% xGF% and 64.38% of the high-danger chances when they were on the ice. They are legitimately one of the best lines in the NHL right now and have the talent to score even when facing their opponent’s shutdown lines.

With Anthony Cirelli returning, there was some shuffling along the bottom six with Cirelli joining Ross Colton and Patrick Maroon for most of the time on the third line. They were solid with 2 goals and a 52.33 xGF%, but it was the new fourth line that really showed signs of improvement with 2 goals on their own, a 62.23 xGF% and 61.11% of the high-danger chances.

After two months of them not being able to flip the ice, we started to see them spend a lot more time in the opponent’s zone. They may not have scored many goals, but they took pressure off of the defense and set up the top two lines to do their thing.

As for Cirelli, he came back and posted 7 points (1 goal, 6 assists) in 12 games. He also led the team in 5v5 expected goals at 4.35 and high-danger chances with 26. That’s not too surprising considering his crash-the-net style of play. Hopefully, as the season moves on he can start finishing off some of those chances.

Somehow Pat Maroon only had 1 point, it was a goal, in the month. It seemed he was all around the net for most of the month and kept coming close on chance after chance. He did post a 2.06 iXG with 14 iHDCF.

Defensively Victor Hedman spent most of the month with Nick Perbix (110:17) and Ian Cole with Erik Cernak (167:48). When Zach Bogosian was in the line-up he paired up with Hedman, a combination we’ve seen in January as well.

Cole and Cernak have evolved as their best defensive pair, posting a goals against per 60 of 2.15 at 5v5, the best mark by any pairing that spent more than 30 minutes together on the ice in the month. Their play has allowed Coach Cooper to put Hedman in more favorable offensive situations, which likely helps explain why the Big Swede responded with his best scoring month of the season. It also lets him back Hedman’s minutes down, which will be key moving forward.

In all, it was a really solid month for the Lightning as they showed us, at times, how good they can be. There were also some slip-ups along the way (the last two games of the month) but for the most part they are looking like a playoff team.