1.In an earlier column this year, I referenced a comment Jon Cooper made before the Lightning’s second game of the season. In his pregame media session prior to the Lightning’s October 10th game in Buffalo, Cooper speculated that, compared to last season, it might not take as many points for teams to qualify for the postseason.
In 2014-15, the Boston Bruins missed the playoffs, despite recording 96 points. In the West, the LA Kings couldn’t get in with 95 points. Traditionally, those point totals would have been enough – usually, the lowest-ranked playoff team has a total in the low 90s. Cooper’s belief was that, unlike last year, the bottom teams in the league should be more competitive, meaning that there would be fewer points to go around for the other clubs.
The Lightning passed the halfway mark of the season over the weekend. They aren’t alone. All but five of 30 NHL teams have played at least 41 games. While point totals at this time aren’t definitively predictive of final point totals, they can give us a general idea of whether Cooper’s early season prediction may come to fruition.
In the East, most of the teams just above or below the playoff cut line have between 44 and 47 points. If those Eastern teams produce a similar second half to first half, the wildcard battles will be determined by clubs ranging in point totals from the high eighties to low nineties.
The West has two disparate divisions – in terms of depth, the Central is much stronger than the Pacific. But the top three teams in the Pacific automatically earn a postseason berth. This could create controversy at season’s end, especially if the second and third place Pacific teams make the playoffs with a point total lower than the sixth-place Central club. It could happen. Arizona, currently in second place in the Pacific, has 46 points through 41 games, on pace for only a 92-point finish. Whichever team finishes third in the Pacific projects to a total in the mid-eighties. Colorado and Nashville, both having passed the halfway mark, are currently tied for the final wildcard spot with 45 points, prorated for a total in the high-eighties. Whether or not there will be any controversy about automatic playoff berths remains to be seen. Either way, though, those teams in contention are on pace to finish well below LA’s 95 points from 2014-15.
So halfway through the season, it appears Cooper may have been right about playoff cut line projections. On the other hand, a lot can still happen to adjust those numbers. Perhaps a handful of teams get hot while others cool off. Or, compared to the first half, the second half has more overtime games – which would push up point totals. Still, as of today, it certainly looks like 95 or 96 points should be good enough to get into the postseason. Unlike last year.
2.Teams around the NHL are coached to defend. It can be hard for attacking clubs to find time and space to make plays. That’s one reason why scoring is down league-wide. One tool clubs can use to counter “structure” is to activate defensemen. Before Saturday’s game in Vancouver, Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune asked Cooper if an attacking defenseman moving down to the hashmarks “confuses” the defending team. Cooper stated that it probably doesn’t bother the teams that defend well.
Still, a defenseman jumping in the play off the rush, or, skating down low while his team has offensive zone possession, can create a different wrinkle, one to which the other team must react. True, some teams may respond better than others, but either way, it does put added pressure on the defending club.
Here are a few examples. On Tuesday in Calgary, Flames defensemen T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano BOTH attacked on the same rush, creating a three-on-two advantage. Giordano took a pass from Brodie and got it to the front of the net, where Matt Stajan scored the game’s first goal. In Edmonton on Friday, with the Lightning trailing by a goal late in the third period, Victor Hedman took a lead pass from Vladdy Namestnikov and charged up the ice, creating a two-on-one. The rush led to the tying goal. Then, on Steven Stamkos’ winning goal, Hedman, after getting his right circle shot blocked, collected his own rebound and skated behind the Edmonton net. Two Oiler defenders chased him behind the goal, which left Stamkos open at the left circle. Stamkos eventually put the puck in off the skate of Darnell Nurse, but Hedman created the opportunity with his willingness to take the puck down low. And late in the third period on Saturday in Vancouver, Canucks defenseman Ben Hutton rushed the puck into the Lightning zone, passed it to Bo Horvat and charged to the front of the net. Hutton was at the top of the crease as Horvat’s shot went in, tying the game at two.
Aggressively activating defensemen can be a double-edged sword, though. If the puck is turned over, the other side has a chance to counter. In the case of Hedman, he’s such a good skater that often he can hustle back and “catch up” to the play. But for teams that don’t have a player who skates like Hedman, they must ensure that a forward is properly positioned to cover for the attacking defenseman – and that the forward is capable of defending well enough to deny the other team a scoring chance. Still, the “active D” strategy can be an effective way for clubs to create more time and space in the offensive zone.
3.With the Lightning having passed the halfway mark, which player has made the biggest jump in his development this year? I believe it’s been Namestnikov. He’s always possessed high-end skill, but this has been the first NHL season in which he’s displayed it consistently. Part of that has to do with experience – he’s been a pro player since 2012 and played his first NHL game in February, 2014. While he spent the 2014-15 season shuttling between the NHL and AHL, he slowly grew acclimated to the NHL game. Now, he’s gained enough confidence so that he not hesitant to utilize his strengths: skating, stick-handling and play-making. He’s got 18 points, tied for fifth-most on the club, and is tied for the team lead with a plus-10 rating. He’s been a difference-maker in two overtime wins this year for the Lightning – he scored the winner on a coast-to-coast rush in Toronto on December 15 and set up Nikita Kucherov’s game-winner with a perfect stretch pass on Saturday in Vancouver.
4.When the Lightning visited the Colorado Avalanche during the past two seasons, former Lightning assistant coach George Gwozdecky relayed an interesting observation. Gwozdecky knows the Mile High City well, having coached at the University of Denver for 19 seasons before joining the Lightning’s staff in 2013. (Gwozdecky is now coaching a high school team in the Denver-area).
Gwozdecky said that visiting teams do have an issue adjusting to the high altitude, but that it doesn’t affect them immediately. Typically, the University of Denver, when at home, would host the same opponent for back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday nights. The opposing club would initially arrive on a Thursday. Gwozdecky felt that the altitude played more of a role in the Saturday game than the Friday contest. In other words, he contends that it’s the second day after arriving in Denver when the altitude really bothers players, not the first day after getting to town. I don’t know anything about the science of it, but I trust Gwozdecky’s assessment, which is based on nearly two decades of first-hand observations.
It’s interesting, then, that the Lightning elected to stay in Vancouver for an off-day on Sunday and didn’t leave for Denver until Monday. The team is scheduled to arrive at its Denver hotel in the early evening and will play the Avs the next night.
Vancouver is a beautiful city and it’s a terrific place to spend an off-day for the players, especially after finishing up a back-to-back set. Maybe there were other reasons for the extended stay in Vancouver, where the Lightning practiced on Monday morning.
But if Gwozdecky’s contention about adjusting to the altitude is at all accurate, the Lightning did the right thing by arriving in Denver just one night before the game. Hopefully, it’ll help them against the Avs, who haven’t lost a home game to the Lightning since March of 2004.
In each of the past two seasons, the Lightning have had to play in Denver on the second half of a back-to-back (against a rested opponent). That’s also not an ideal scenario in terms of dealing with the high altitude. Of course, that’s not the case this year – the Lightning will play the Avs three days after their last game, Saturday’s contest in Vancouver. So we’ll see if the Lightning can get points of Tuesday’s game – if so, they’ll return home from this four-game trip with at least five points.