TampaBayLightning.com is excited to present the "Blogger Roundtable". We have asked independent bloggers who cover the Lightning to provide their analysis and thoughts on different topics relating to the team.
The Blogger Roundtable is published with the intent to provide engaging content for Lightning fans. We strive to be the focal point of discussion within the Lightning community and provide alternative types of original content. Please note the contributors of the Blogger Roundtable are independent writers and bloggers whose viewpoints and expressions may not be reflective of the Tampa Bay Lightning Organization, and who are not compensated for their participation.
This Week's Question: Half Season Impressions
The Lightning arrive at the mid-way point of the 2013-14 season in second place in the Atlantic Division, despite having Steven Stamkos out of the lineup for 22 games. What factor do you attribute to the Lightning success, and what is the biggest question mark in the second half of the season?
When I look at this season, I can't help but compare it to last season and the issues that dogged the club. There were defensive issues and puck control issues. Last year's team could score seemingly at-will but it couldn't hold a lead because of those two caveats as well as goaltending issues.
Success this season has been by way of correcting those issues. Things aren't perfect, but they are slightly better than they had been a year ago. The Bolts are 10-4-4 in games decided by 1-goal. That is double their win total from the 2013 season (5-12-4) and nearly double the points earned.
As for the biggest question going forward is about team health; can the franchise withstand another round of injuries to all sorts of players? Will system depth continue to keep the Lightning afloat in that instance, and what roster changes will be made with the return of Steven Stamkos to the lineup later this season, and potentially at the 2014 NHL trade deadline? There are much bigger and more direct questions following the team for the second half, but with a perceived importance with team chemistry, this one stands out for me.
The biggest contributing factor to the Lightning's success so far is a 6-foot-7-inch masked man. Ben Bishop's efforts this season have been pretty incredible for a goaltender still gaining playing experience in the NHL. Gaudy stats are great, but knowing it has a solid presence in net allows the Lightning to play with more confidence. Everyone plays better when they can trust their goalie to bail them out if necessary.
The biggest question for the second half is if Bishop can maintain this level of excellence. He's being called on to play more than ever before in his career. The last thing Tampa needs is an over worked goalie burning out if it makes it to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Keeping Bishop healthy and rested is vital to maintain the Bolts' position in the standings.
When Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg back in November, many critics said the Lightning could not remain in playoff contention. Now with 25 wins through 41 games this season, the Bolts have positioned themselves for a playoff run.
It's hard to attribute that success to one single factor; I'm torn between two. Firstly, the impact that Jon Cooper and his staff have had on the group cannot be understated. He's brought the winning culture that made his teams successful in Syracuse and Norfolk right here to Tampa Bay. Cooper's systems are solid, and he seems to have an innate ability to get guys to play at a high level on a consistent basis. At this point in the season, I'd have him right at the forefront of the Jack Adams discussion.
With that said, if I'm being forced to pick one single factor to attribute to the Lightning's success, I'm going with the stellar play of goaltender Ben Bishop. It would be impossible to understate just how good he's been for a team that has struggled in the crease for a number of years. As of time of writing (Jan. 5), Bishop sits tied for first in the league with four shutouts and a .936 save percentage, third in the league with a 1.83 goals against average, and second in the league with 22 wins. That's Vezina-quality goaltending. Night in and night out, Bishop is doing more than enough to give his Lightning a chance to win hockey games. He's No. 30 in our programs, but in my opinion he's the No. 1 reason for Tampa's success this year.
I'm tempted to point to the impact the organization's depth has had in accordance with the long-term vision general manager Steve Yzerman initially laid out. This has been an emphasis on the development and infusion of well-groomed talent (both inherited and drafted after taking the helm) as well as select free-agent acquisitions. With 13 total players with less than a full season's worth of NHL action, it's hard not to dwell on how the Lightning has fared in the absence of its superstar forward, Steven Stamkos.
The answer has been goaltending. In particular, it is the play of Ben Bishop, who has posted quality appearances in 26 of the 32 starts he's made and league-best save percentages in 5-on-5, and penallty kill situations, has him solidly in the Vezina discussion. He has been the critical element of stability for such a young and injury-riddled club for which offensive and defensive effectiveness has waxed and waned. That said, a half-season is still a limited body of work and Bishop is in previously uncharted waters in terms of performance and workload at this level. One might wonder whether he can not only stay fresh and healthy but also avoid significant regression moving forward.