Heading into last Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, which was the Lightning’s 41st of the regular season, Rick Tocchet was asked about the areas in which the Lightning needed to improve in the second half. More consistent play, he replied.
Ah, consistency. That sneaky, elusive and highly sought-after quality. Tocchet is correct that the Lightning have not played consistently throughout the first half. They’ve been very good in some contests and average in others. There have also been a few downright clunkers. Even within some games, they’ve struggled to find consistency. A solid period might precede a bad one, or vice-versa.
But in looking about the league, it’s clear that the consistency problem isn’t exclusive to Tampa Bay. With a few notable exceptions, nearly every NHL team has battled inconsistency during the first half of the season. Why is it so prevalent? And more importantly, how can teams overcome it?
First off, let’s look at some of the clubs that essentially have avoided the inconsistency bug. They’re easy to find because they’re at the top of the standings. Teams such as Chicago, San Jose, New Jersey, Buffalo and Washington. Sure, these clubs have laid a few eggs over the course of the opening half, but for the most part, they’ve brought their “A” game onto the ice. One of the common denominators is that, excluding Buffalo, these were playoff teams last year and brought back their core group, so chemistry has not been an issue. They all execute their team game plan well, which helps them avoid any long losing skids. Then there’s the ultimate equalizer – goaltending/team defense. Take Buffalo. Ryan Miller has been first or second all season among NHL goalies in goals-against average and save percentage. Statistically, the Sabres are only an average offensive team, but thanks to Miller, they’re competitive and in the hunt for points every night. Plus, they play a sound team game in front of him and rarely deviate from their team concept. That’s consistency.
For the rest of the pack, including the Lightning, all are hoping to be more consistent in the second half. Perhaps there were many new faces in the lineup and the unit will really start to gel in the final three months. Or, as Tocchet has said, learn how to play the same solid game each and every night.
As these teams seek consistency, the formula in the first half has been straightforward. In the games in which you’re on, make sure you bank two points. In the others, find ways to steal points by keeping the contest close. Maybe you’ll get a key play at an important time and/or extend the game to overtime. Pick up one point and then take your chances in the four-on-four or shootout.
As an example, let’s look at the Lightning’s game against Montreal on December 30. This game came on the heels of one of the Bolts’ best wins of the year, a 2-1 decision over Boston. But in the Montreal contest, the Lightning looked flat in the first two periods, enjoyed little puck possession time and spent most of the opening 40 minutes defending in their own end. Due to Mike Smith’s superb goaltending, the Lightning only trailed 1-0 after two periods. Then the Lightning picked up their game in the third period, controlled the final 20 minutes and tied the score. The Canadiens eventually won in overtime. So the good news was that the Lightning, despite being outplayed for most of the game, earned a point. But the troubling part revolved around the consistency question: how could the team, coming off the well-played victory over Boston, look so disorganized against the Canadiens?
Part of the answer lies in this simple truism – there are two teams on the ice and sometimes the other guys have really got it going. In the first two periods, the Canadiens were passing the puck as well as any team the Lightning have played this year. They were that good. (And, to make a point about Montreal’s consistency issues, the Canadiens had won four of their previous five games prior to December 30, but had been badly outshot in all of their wins, an indication that their game maybe had not been quite so crisp in those earlier contests).
But the other part of the answer has to do with the Lightning. As well as the Canadiens were playing, the Lightning were helping Montreal’s cause with poor decision-making and overall sloppiness.
Speaking generally about the consistency problem, Tocchet told the St. Pete Times, “As a team and individuals, we have to challenge ourselves to play consistently unselfish hockey, even though it’s hard. We get in situations where we play three or four good games and (then) we go through stretches where we try to make it easier on ourselves.”
In other words, the Lightning can control their consistency level. It’s not easy, which is another reason why so many clubs struggle with it. With the proper mindset and willingness to not “make it easier”, the Lightning can have more outcomes like last Saturday’s 3-1 win over Pittsburgh. It was a game in which they decisively outplayed the defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins.
The playoff race is, in fact, a race. It’s a race to find consistency. The teams that get there the quickest will put themselves in a position to move up the standings in a hurry. Those that can’t find it will likely be on the outside looking in.