Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone and the Lightning are on the wrong side of the playoff cut line. Will they be part of the 25% to climb back over that line by the time the regular season ends?
Typically, teams need about 92 points in order to qualify for the postseason. Last year was an exception, as both the Boston Bruins (96 points) and LA Kings (95) points missed the playoffs.
One method for tracking a team’s progress and determining the likelihood of making the playoffs is to separate the season into 10-game segments. The goal for each segment is 12 points. Using that metric, a team, with 12 points in each of the first 8 segments, would have 96 points after 80 games. Add in potential points from Games 81 and 82 and it’s a safe bet that this formula will lead to a postseason berth. How are the Lightning faring using this standard? They did earn 12 points in their first 10 games (5-3-2 record), but banked only seven points in Games 11-20. So they need to “make up” five points in future segments. Halfway through their third segment, the Lightning have gone 3-2-0, on target for 12 points, but needing a strong final five games to make up some of the “lost” points from the second segment.
Here’s another way to look at it. For the sake of clarity, let’s label a team’s record as .500 if the number of wins and regulation losses are the same. (I understand OT and shootout losses are, well, losses, but teams do take a point out of those games.) No matter how many OT/SO losses a team has accumulated, a club with a .500 record will always have the same number of points as games played. So a team that finishes its season with a .500 record will have 82 points. A team with a final record one game over .500 would have 83 points. Two games over would equal 84 points, etc. If the Lightning want to reach 92 points, a total which may or may not be enough to qualify for the postseason, they’ll need to be 10 games over .500. To reach the safer number of 97, they’ll need 15 more wins than regulation losses. The Lightning are currently at .500, with a record of 11-11-3 through 25 games. They have 57 games left to pull their record at least 10, and preferably 15, games over .500.
Under this lens, the biggest challenge in these next 57 games is avoiding regulation losses. Simply put, the Lightning must go on a regulation loss diet. I know there are teams that, at the end of a season in which they miss the playoffs by mere points, bemoan points left on the table because of overtime or shootout losses. That may be true. But overall, there’s no bigger detriment to a team’s playoff aspirations than regulation losses. The best way to build an above .500 record – and extend it – is to drastically reduce regulation losses.
2.So that’s the goal for the Lightning as they begin December. Are they capable of going on such a run? I believe they are – and the reason lies in how they performed in November. On paper, the Lightning’s month was nothing special. They went 6-6-1 during 13 November games. But despite that record, the team’s overall play was quite consistent. By my count, there were only two November games in which the Lightning played badly: November 10th against Buffalo and November 27th at Washington. In the other 11 contests, the Lightning played well enough to win, or, at the very least, well enough to “point” by getting the game to overtime).
In many of their November losses, the Lightning did a number of things well. Well enough to normally earn a point, if not more. Why didn’t they? Different reasons, depending on the game. They were undone by a costly isolated mistake. Or a hot goalie. Or a weird deflection. Or, in the case of Saturday’s loss to the Islanders, poor special teams play.
Every team is going to lay an egg every once in while. A couple every month is not usual – and sometimes, a strong goaltending performance can help a club steal some of those games. As a whole, though, if the Lightning can give themselves a chance to point in 11 of every 13 games, their record will improve. And the win total will grow much faster than the regulation loss count.
3.Here’s the rub, though. No matter how well the Lightning may have played in many of their games, they’re not getting points out of enough of them. That needs to change. So how do they make it happen? In the short term, they’ll need to shore up their penalty killing, which has yielded five goals in the last seven kill opportunities. But it’s hard to blame the penalty kill beyond the last two games. After a shaky start to the season, the PK had been quite strong, up until last weekend.
Instead, there has been one common denominator as to why the Lightning have lost so many of the games in which they’ve otherwise played reasonably well. The Bolts have scored two goals or less in 14 of their first 25 games. Take out the first three games of the season and it’s two or less in 14 of the past 22. Even with scoring down across the league, it’s very difficult to win games in which you only score two goals. If the Lightning are going to successfully cut down on regulation losses, they need to give their goalies a little more margin for error. One would figure that the team which led the league in offense last year can produce more goals, but it hasn’t yet happened consistently.
4.What is going on with all the penalty shots in Lightning games this season? The Lightning have already had six penalty shots called in games so far this year (two for, four against). That’s compared to seven total penalty shots called in the two past seasons combined! It’s true that two of these penalty shots have come during the new three-on-three overtime format, in which breakaways are more likely to occur. But it seems that the standard for calling a penalty shot is looser. We’ve seen officials call penalty shots after plays in which the attacking player had a step on the trailing defender, but wasn’t completely in the clear.
All these penalty shots have sparked an interesting discussion on our radio broadcasts. Phil Esposito believes a shooter has less of an advantage in a penalty shot as opposed to in the flow of the game. That’s because in a penalty shot, the goalie has a chance to get set. The stats certainly favor the goalie. As of Monday, there had been only four goals scored on 22 penalty shot attempts, an average of just over 18 percent. (This is not including shootout attempts – just penalty shots issued due to in-game infractions).
Phil believes that the team awarded a penalty shot should have the option of taking a two-minute power play instead. Based on current percentages, 18 out of 30 teams have a power play percentage of 18.7% or better, meaning that their conversion rate exceeds the league average on penalty shots. If Phil had his way, then a team awarded a penalty shot in overtime could opt for a four-on-three power play. Not only are the odds of scoring higher in four-on-three than in a five-on-four, the two minutes on the power play would limit the other team’s chances to score during the three-on-three OT. Of course, if the team opted for the penalty shot and scored on it, then the game would be over. But unlike on the power play, the odds are no greater for the shooting team in overtime than they are during regulation time.
All this talk about penalty shots begs another question. Why, all those years ago, did the league decide that on a breakaway penalty, a single penalty shot is the appropriate call? Isn’t a denied breakaway “worse” than, say, a knick-knack tug on the glove during a nothing play in the neutral zone? Or a puck accidentally shot out of play from the defensive zone? Yet those infractions earn the other team two minutes of power play time, which, especially in overtime, would be potentially more valuable than a single penalty shot.
I like Phil’s idea of giving a team the choice of the shot or the power play, but I’d even go a step further. When a penalty shot is called, I’d give the attacking team the penalty shot. If the player scores on the ensuing shot, it’s a goal. But if he doesn’t score, his team still gets the two-minute power play. Would this be so different than the existing procedure on delayed penalty calls? When a penalty is assessed during game action, the attacking team still has a chance to score until the opposing club gains possession of the puck. If a goal is scored, then the penalty is wiped out. During a clean breakaway on which a penalty is committed, an infraction that prevents the attacking player from taking a shot, what’s wrong with giving that player a chance to score after the penalty, just as a team does during a delayed penalty call? Also, if such a rule change were to take place, officials would likely be much more deliberate in signaling penalty shots, ensuring that the attacking player was truly in the clear. Obviously, I’m not holding my breath on this one.
5.What teams have impressed me the most so far this year? The Montreal Canadiens currently have the most points in the NHL, but the Lightning have yet to see their division rivals. On the other hand, the Bolts have faced all seven teams from the competitive Central Division, as well as many other teams with high point totals.
The best team I’ve seen live this year has been the LA Kings. I know the Kings ended up losing that game to the Lightning on November 25 in a shootout, but the result doesn’t change what I saw on the ice. The Kings are machine-like in their execution. All the players seem to be on the same page. And the pages are in a book that, for the opposition, is not a pleasant one to read. The Kings are all hard on pucks and determined to win 50-50 battles. They finish their checks. They get pucks to the opposition net and have players there to screen the goalie and jump on rebounds. They don’t make many mistakes, meaning that they are always where they are supposed to be. In short, they play the game the right way – and do it very, very well.
This style of play is nothing new for the Kings, who have won two Stanley Cups in the past four seasons. It’s a little surprising that they have sometimes struggled to score during their successful run over the past few years, because they have plenty of skilled players on the roster.
On November 25, the Lightning were able match up well with the Kings. And they got a 37-save performance from Ben Bishop. They’ll need a similar type of performance when they visit the Kings on Sunday.
The most lethal power play has been Washington’s. Again, this is nothing new. Washington has been at or near the top of the league in power play percentage for past several years. I believe it was Adam Oates who, as head coach of the Caps in 2012-13 and 2013-14, designed the structure of their current power play. When Barry Trotz took over last year, he was smart enough to keep it in place. Naturally, in order for the power play to work so effectively, the Caps need to have high skill players positioned at different areas on the ice. They do. Alex Ovechkin at the left circle/left point is a weapon, but he’s not the only one. So if the opposition decides to take away a potential pass to Ovechkin, the Caps are content to attack from the right side. Or the point. Or the slot. Washington’s power play percentage is at 26.8%, currently third in the league. I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually goes higher during the season. Incidentally, the Boston Bruins have the top ranked power play, clicking at an incredible 32.4%. While Boston netted three power play goals against the Bolts on October 12 and it’s tough to not pick a unit scoring at a nearly one-in-three clip, I still feel Washington’s power play is the best I’ve seen so far.
Washington’s power play looked awesome, but the best offensive team I’ve seen is Dallas. I’m picking the Stars even though I don’t think they were at their sharpest when they beat the Lightning, 5-3, on October 15. The Lightning actually outplayed the Stars for long stretches in that game. But that’s what a dangerous offensive attack can do for a team – score timely goals when the other side seemingly has momentum. As was the case last year, when they finished second to the Lightning in offense, the Stars have been a scoring machine. Jamie Benn (18 goals) and Tyler Seguin (13 goals) provide a potent one-two punch. Jason Spezza has nine goals and Patrick Sharp has produced eight. John Klingberg will likely challenge Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson in the race for the top scoring defenseman.
So those are my picks, for now. Montreal comes to Amalie Arena, however, on December 28th.