Is one NHL regular season win more important than any other? In the most literal sense, the answer is no. A victory in the regular season is worth two points. No more, no less.
On the other hand, there’s an argument to be made that some victories do carry more weight. A divisional contest is often called a “four-point game”, because the shift between the clubs could be as great as four points, depending on the outcome. And in the event of a tie between teams at the end of the regular season, shootout wins don’t count towards a team’s win total, which is the first tie-breaker.
Just as significantly, some wins have an immeasurable intangible benefit. It may be early to predict, but the Lightning’s victory over Carolina on Sunday potentially could be one of those important victories.
It seems crazy to think that NHL players can suffer from a lack of confidence. After all, they are supreme experts in their field, able to perform feats that are impossible for nearly everybody else. But it happens – and not just to individuals. Whole teams also can collectively waver in their confidence. It’s an insidious disease. It usually starts with something small, a mini-slump that’s a by-product of bad luck and high-level play from the opposition. But if it continues beyond a game or two, it can grow into something else. Players become hesitant to make decisions, which compounds the problem. Also, there’s a mental strain. When things aren’t going well, it becomes harder to shake off events that go against your squad within a game.
Before beating Carolina on Sunday, the Lightning were on an 0-3-1 skid. Surprisingly, the team that led the league in goals last year was having trouble scoring. The winless streak began with back-to-back shutout losses in Chicago and St. Louis and then a third defeat at home against Colorado. In none of those three games did the Lightning play particularly badly – in fact, they outplayed the Blues and Avalanche for a good portion of the second and third games. But the Lightning couldn’t finish off scoring chances. They hit some posts and misfired on some other Grade-A chances. Opposing goalies made great saves. And all three clubs defended hard against the Lightning, blocking lots of shots.
In fourth game of the skid, Saturday’s contest against Boston, the Lightning started well. They controlled the puck for a majority of the first period and took a 1-0 lead on a Nikita Kucherov power play goal. It was the Lightning’s first lead since the winless skid began. But it didn’t last. The Bruins tied it late in the first and that Boston tally seemed to both deflate the Lightning and energize the Bruins. In the final two periods, the Lightning lost numerous puck battles and were forced to play without the puck. Simply put, their compete level wasn’t high enough.
Such a performance was atypical for the Lightning. Normally, their compete level is high, which allows them to play their speed game. The Bolts typically use their speed to win loose pucks. Clean passing also is a big part of the Lightning’s game, because tape-to-tape passes help a team play fast. The opposite is also true, though. Poor passing will slow down any team – and as the Boston game progressed, the Lightning had trouble executing passes up ice. The Bruins therefore had an easy time disrupting those Lightning rushes, taking the puck away and countering.
The Lightning are known as a team that can score “pretty” goals off nice passing plays, but when they are on their game, they are also capable of getting “greasy” goals. Goals that are scored off rebounds or tips from in front of the net. During the slump, however, when they had the puck in the offensive zone, they weren’t getting players to those areas. And that was true not only against the Bruins, but also at points in other games during the skid.
But the game against the Bruins was the worst of the four. So heading into Sunday’s game at Carolina, the “disease” had spread and the Lightning needed to find a cure. It didn’t happen right away. In the first period, the Lightning outshot the Hurricanes, 10-6. But Carolina had the better scoring chances and took a 1-0 lead when Eric Staal scored a power play goal. Jon Cooper switched up his forward line combinations to start the second – he commented afterwards that he felt his team was “stale” in the first. A unit of Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan and Ondrej Palat teamed up to tally the tying goal 38 seconds into the period. The goal was scored off one of those aforementioned pretty passing plays – Palat slid the puck to an open Callahan in front – but the play wouldn’t have been made without Palat’s hard work. He anticipated a Carolina D-to-D pass in the Hurricanes end and stole the puck. He then shook off a check from John-Michael Liles, which created the two-on-one chance.
The high compete-level exhibited on that play was contagious and the other players maintained it on subsequent shifts. With the increased compete level, the Lightning were able to play with the puck and apply pressure throughout the second period. That sustained pressure eventually led to two Carolina penalties and the Lightning converted on the second one, which allowed them to take a 2-1 lead into the locker room after two periods. With Carolina trailing in the third, the Hurricanes had to open up their game, which created counter chances for the Lightning. The Bolts added two more goals in the third, going up 4-1. The ‘Canes scored a couple of late goals to set the final at 4-3, but the game wasn’t as close as the final score might indicate.
In his postgame comments, Cooper said that after Callahan’s goal, the “bubble burst” and the Lightning got their “swag” back. (Meaning “swagger”). The high compete level fed into the team’s confidence, which, in turn, helped fuel the compete level. Passes were tape-to-tape. The forecheck was relentless. And scoring chances were plentiful – if not for Carolina goalie Cam Ward, the Lightning would have scored more than four. It’s true that none of the four goals came on rebounds or tips, but the Lightning still had players in those “greasy” areas. Callahan and J.T. Brown both drove hard to the net on their goals. And Palat screened Ward on Stamkos’ second period power play goal.
Will Cooper keep those new lines together for Tuesday’s game in Detroit? The Stamkos-Callahan-Palat and Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov-Alex Killorn lines both had chemistry. While everybody (except the opposition, maybe) likes to see the Triplets play together, Cooper’s decision to split them up seemed to spark all three players. Just as the Bolts were struggling to score as a team, Johnson was in an individual slump. Even though he’d been accumulating numerous chances, he hadn’t scored in the first 12 regular season games. His third period goal, then, was a huge relief and will hopefully be a springboard for a more to come.
Just as Sunday’s victory could be a springboard for the Lightning. In another one of his postgame quotes, Cooper stated that the offensive slump “wasn’t due to lack of chances, it’s just that the net went from a 6-by-4 to a 2-by-2.” It shouldn’t feel that way anymore for the Lightning. But, as they move forward on the road trip, they’ll have to remember that a high compete level and high confidence go hand-in-hand. They’ll need to bring the same work ethic that was on display in the final two periods against the Hurricanes. Coupled with their improved defensive play (which was overlooked because of the winless streak and lack of offense), the rediscovered offensive “swagger” could help the team add more wins on this road trip.