For much of the first half of the season, we were waiting for the Lightning to go on a hot streak. Prior to January, though, it hadn’t happened. To that point, the best the Lightning had managed were two separate three-game winning streaks. That changed, of course, once the calendar turned to 2016. Heading into tonight’s game in Ottawa, the Lightning have won 11 of 13 games, including 10 wins in their last 11. How have they been able to accomplish it?
First things first. The Lightning are playing better than earlier in the year. But it’s not as if they’re rolling over their opponents night after night. Parity in the NHL is real. Teams are very well-coached and it’s hard to dominate a single opponent for a full 60 minutes, let alone dominate numerous teams over the course of a week, month or season. One of the Lightning’s January wins came against the Chicago Blackhawks, who were riding a franchise-record 12-game winning streak at the time. I was interested to note some of the comments from the Chicago players before the matchup with the Lightning. Those players conceded that there had been some games during the streak in which the team had played really well, but also some games where they hadn’t been at their best (but still won).
Similarly, in breaking down these past 10 Lightning wins (starting with the January 8th victory over Edmonton), we see a variety of different types of games. I’d classify two of 10 wins as absolute gems: the 4-0 victory on January 12 at Colorado and the 2-1 triumph over the Blackhawks on January 21. Those were games in which the Lightning thoroughly controlled play and did dominate the opposition.
There have also been three games I’d term as “Advantage Lightning”: the 3-2 OT win in Vancouver on January 9, the 3-1 triumph over Florida on January 17 and the 3-1 victory over Detroit on February 3. These were games in which the Lightning played quite well and, in terms of flow of play, had an overall advantage against their opponent. But they weren’t one-sided victories. The opposition also played pretty well. Still, one came away with the feeling – after these games ended – that they were contests the Lightning deserved to win.
I count four more games as “Even”. By “even”, I feel that either both teams did a good job neutralizing the other side’s attack so that neither club had a prolonged, decided advantage at any time in the game or both teams, at different points in the game, did decisively carry play. These games were the 3-2 win on January 8 at Edmonton, the 6-4 win on January 19 versus Edmonton, the 1-0 victory on January 27 against Toronto and Friday’s 6-3 triumph over Pittsburgh.
Then there was one “Steal”. That’d be the January 15 game against Pittsburgh. It was a 5-4 overtime triumph for the Lightning, but after a strong opening few minutes for the Bolts, Pittsburgh carried play for most of the rest of the game. Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed four goals, but was a big reason why the Lightning were able to ultimately win.
So there have been different kinds of wins against different kinds of opponents. To be clear, I’m not classifying these games as a way of diminishing the hot streak. Rather, it makes the Lightning’s stretch even more impressive. They’ve won games they’ve dominated, won games in which they’ve slightly outplayed their oppoenent, won close, evenly-contested games and even stolen one.
But while there may not have been one consistent storyline about how these games have unfolded, there has been a different kind of consistency. Here are some of the components that have contributed to the 10-1 stretch.
Getting Healthy: On Janaury 2, Ondrej Palat returned to the Lightning lineup after recovering from his second ankle injury of the season. His return was the last one in a long line of injured forwards. Shortly after his return, Jon Cooper assembled his top three lines as follows: Palat-Steven Stamkos-Vladdy Namestnikov, Alex Killorn-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Brown-Valtteri Filppula-Ryan Callahan. Some combination of Cedric Paquette-Brian Boyle-Erik Condra-Jonathan Marchessault has comprised the fourth line.
The lines have chemistry and, as a result, have stayed intact. The top two lines are dynamic offensive units and have presented matchup problems for the opposition. The Filppula line has usually drawn the assignment of matching up against the other side’s top line. Not only has the Filppula line defended well, they’ve often carried play in those matchups (which has helped them keep the opposition line quiet).
One of the reasons why the Lightning led the NHL in offense last year was that they had balanced scoring. During the 10-1 stretch, different lines have led the way for the Lightning in different games. Sometimes it’s been more than one of the lines. Either way, a full arsenal has been a key part to the Lightning’s run.
More Goals: Simply put, the Lightning are winning more now than earlier in the year because they’re scoring more. In today’s NHL, the magic number for success or failure is three goals. Hold the opposition to under three and, on most nights, you’ll be banking points.
But that didn’t happen for the Lightning early on. In the first half of the season, the Lightning lost 11 games in which they held the opposition to two goals or less (not including empty-net goals). Ten of those losses were regulation losses, so the Lightning picked up only one point out of those 11 contests.
During the hot streak, the Lightning have found the net with more regularity. They do have wins of 2-1 over Chicago and 1-0 against Toronto, but they’ve tallied at least three goals in the other eight victories. In most of these games, they’ve still held the opposition to two or less, but their increased offensive production has helped them win some games when that didn’t happen. Like the 6-4 win over Edmonton, plus the 5-4 (ot) and 6-3 triumphs over Pittsburgh.
Certainly, the aforementioned team health has helped contribute to the higher offensive output. And those two categories are tied in with the next one, too.
Power Play: The Lightning’s power play has been very productive. That productivity actually predates the current hot streak – the Bolts went 9-30 on the power play during their six-game homestand from December 20 through January 2. The power play didn’t score a goal on the four-game road trip through Western Canada and Colorado, but it picked up again once the Lightning returned home. Beginning with their January 15 game against Pittsburgh, the Lightning have netted eight power play goals in their last eight games.
Playing With The Lead: This one is similarly tied to some of the other categories. If you are scoring regularly, you are more likely to be playing with a lead. Excluding their January 8 win in Edmonton, the Lightning, in their other nine wins during the 10-1 stretch, have not had to chase deficits very often – or for very long.
Beginning with the January 9 victory at Vancouver, the Lightning have not trailed at all in six of their nine wins. In the three other games, they were only down by a goal – and scored to tie within a few minutes of falling behind.
Key Plays At Key Times: When the Lightning have needed someone to make a play, they’ve gotten it. This includes the goaltenders. Ben Bishop and Vasilveskiy have produced crucial saves at critical times during the 10-1 stretch. Vasilevskiy, despite allowing four goals in wins over Pittsburgh and Edmonton, was sensational in denying scoring chances when the opposition surged. That was also true in his 1-0 shutout of Toronto. Similarly, Bishop has came up with important saves during opposition surges, such as on February 17 versus Florida and last Friday against Pittsburgh.
But it hasn’t just been the goaltenders. Anton Stralman’s backhand goal against the Penguins on January 15 erased a late third period deficit. Stralman, by the way, also scored to tie the game after those other two short-lived deficits. Brian Boyle’s shorthanded goal versus Edmonton on January 19 gave the Lightning the lead back after the Oilers had rallied from a two-goal third period deficit. Johnson’s PPG against Detroit on February 3 restored a Lightning lead shortly after the Red Wings had tied it. And there have been the two overtime game-winners as well: Kucherov’s tally at Vancouver and Namestnikov’s strike against the Penguins.
So the winning formula has included a healthy lineup, more goals, power play proficiency, playing with the lead and key plays at key times. The Bolts now will look to keep it going on the road this week against Ottawa and Montreal.