The Lightning have reached the halfway point of the season. It’s been a terrific first half – the team has 54 points and is tied for first place in the Atlantic Division. Here are my first half awards, as well as goals for the second half.
Best Line: Normally, I might pick a ‘Best Forward’, but one could make the argument that the three best forwards all play on the same line. The unit of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat has been not only the best line on the team, perhaps it’s been the best line in the NHL so far this season. Interestingly, none of the three started the season on the same line. But during the team’s early-season Western Canadian road trip, injuries to Ryan Callahan, Alex Killorn, Brett Connolly and J.T. Brown forced Jon Cooper to shuffle his lines. Johnson and Palat, who have played together throughout most of their professional careers, were reunited on October 21 in Calgary and Palat netted the OT game-winner. Three nights later in Winnipeg, after Connolly was hurt in the first period, Kucherov joined Johnson and Palat. The trio combined for seven points that night – and they haven’t slowed down since.
All three players on “That Line” (aka “The Triplets”) possess skill, speed and operate with a high hockey IQ. They have amazing chemistry. But their compete-level is what makes their engine hum. All three are hard on the puck, in all three zones. They are one of the best units in moving the puck out of the defensive zone fluidly. If there’s a miscue and they lose the puck, then they work even harder to retrieve it. Their effectiveness in playing a full 200-foot game is one reason why they own the three best plus/minus ratings in the league.
Best Defenseman: Victor Hedman amassed seven points in his first three games, but then suffered a broken finger in the fifth game. He missed the next 18 contests. One of the reasons why the Lightning were able to thrive during his absence was the play of Anton Stralman.
Associate coach Rick Bowness has spent a number of years coaching with current Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. (Vigneault was an assistant to Bowness in Ottawa and then Bowness served as Vigneault’s assistant in Vancouver). When the Lightning signed Stralman during the offseason, Bowness said that Vigneault called him and stated, “You’re really going to like this guy”. He was right.
Lightning coaches admit that, until Stralman arrived in camp, they didn’t realize how good he actually was. It didn’t take them long to find out. His puck poise is off the charts. No matter the situation, Stralman never seems to panic with the puck. If he retrieves the puck in a dangerous situation in the defensive zone, he calmly moves the puck to a less threatening spot, which allows the Lightning to go on the attack. He has terrific offensive instincts, so he knows when to jump into the play and get loose in the offensive zone. He has contributed 18 points so far this season and leads all Lightning defensemen with a plus 15 rating. The Lightning want to be a puck possession team. Stralman’s puck management skills have been a factor in helping the Bolts possess the puck more than the opposition during most games this year.
Best Defensive Forward: As I alluded to earlier, all three players on the “Triplets” line have been terrific defensively. But beyond that line, Brian Boyle has stood out for his two-way game. Similar to Stralman, one appreciates Boyle’s game even more when seeing him play on a nightly basis. His positioning is sound, his long reach can break up plays, he’s very strong on the puck and he plays a physical game. When he has a chance to move the puck out of a dangerous area, he does it. Late in games, when the Lightning are protecting a one-goal lead, Boyle has repeatedly found ways to get pucks deep into the opposition zone. He has won nearly 53% of his faceoffs, many of which take place in the defensive zone. He’s been a fixture on the penalty kill all season. Plus, he has contributed seven goals so far.
Best Rookie: Not including a brief one-game appearance for Jonathan Marchessault, there have been five rookies to have played for the Lightning this year. All have made an impression. Jonathan Drouin has produced 15 points and shown flashes of his incredible skill set. Cedric Paquette has chipped in five goals and has been a “jack-of-all-trades” player. Vlad Namestnikov, who made the team out of camp, is a dynamic young player with a bright future. Nikita Nesterov has made great strides since his first pro season last year and has not looked out of place in his two NHL games played so far.
But goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has given the Lightning the best performance by a rookie this year. It was only a four-game sample, but Vasilevskiy showed why he’s such a highly-regarded prospect. He’s big. He’s athletic. He’s a fast learner. He’s adaptable. This is his first season playing in North America and during his first few weeks in Syracuse, he struggled with the increased traffic around his net. But he learned to adjust and, at the time of his first recall to the Lightning in mid-December, he had ironed out those kinks in his game. He has won three of his first four starts, but it was the loss that was his most memorable performance. Against the Islanders on December 20, Vasilevskiey was under siege for most of the game. But he put on a goaltending clinic – and kept the Isles off the board until the final minutes. That New York scored two quick goals (and added an empty-netter for a 3-1 final) doesn’t take away from Vasilevskiy’s effort. He made a rookie franchise-record 45 saves and, in what was just his second NHL start, nearly stole a game from one of the top teams in the league this year.
Second Half Goals: As I wrote as the top, it’s been a great first half for the Lightning. But there is room for improvement. Specifically, I feel there are three areas where the team can sharpen its game. First, team defense. Regular readers of these columns have seen this mentioned before. The Bolts would like to whittle their Goals Against Per Game number down. Through 41 games, the Bolts are allowing 2.54 goals per game, tied for 12th in the league. Goals typically dry up in the second half, so it’ll be harder to win games when allowing three or more goals. The Bolts would like to keep the opposition to two goals or less on a regular basis. A big part of that is playing well within their structure so often that making the right play at the right time becomes automatic. There are signs that they are moving in that direction. Following Sunday’s win in Ottawa, the Lightning have held the opposition to two or fewer goals in four of their last five games.
Second, the power play. For a good portion of the first half, the Lightning ranked near the top of the league in power play efficiency. But over the past few weeks, the power play has dried up. Before they scored a PPG against Toronto on December 29, the Lightning had been in a 3-43 power play rut. Including the Toronto game, the Lightning have scored PPG in three of their last four contests. But even still, the power play has often looked out of synch. It needs to regain its early-season crispness.
A failed power play opportunity doesn’t have to be a failure. Pressure generated on a man advantage can help fuel a momentum surge even after the penalty is up. But a power play that yields little offensive zone time can provide a boost to the penalty kill squad. Rediscovering their power play mojo will be an important key in the final 41 regular season games.
And lastly, while this isn’t really an area that needs “sharpening”, it’s still an important one. Experience. It’s sometimes easy to forget, but the Lightning, as a whole, are still young. That’s why adding vets in the offseason like Brendan Morrow, Evgeni Nabokov, Boyle and Stralman were crucial. But the best way to learn how to handle different situations is to experience them first-hand. That’s why last year’s playoff series against Montreal, short as it was, was valuable for the Bolts.
As a more recent example, Friday’s loss in Pittsburgh was disappointing. The Lightning started the game terribly and then, when they cut the Pittsburgh lead to 4-3 in third period, they surrendered a goal on the next shift. Those experiences don’t need to be washed down the drain, though. Hopefully, players will take positives out of that game. Such as learning what it takes to win on the road against an experienced opponent that will make you pay for sloppy mistakes.
So let’s hope the Lightning have lots of these in the second half. No, I don’t mean lots of disheartening losses! But having to deal with adversity in a hostile building will help this team grow. Navigating through the third period while holding a one-goal lead against a hungry, committed opponent will also help. Essentially, the more white our knuckles get watching the Lightning, the better it’ll be for the club in the long run!