1.Tuesday’s game in Calgary will be the Lightning’s 40th of the regular season. This 10-game span (contests 31 through 40) began with a three-game road trip to Columbus, Toronto and Washington and was followed by the just-completed six-game homestand. The nine-game stretch that just ended represented an excellent opportunity for the Lightning to make a move up the standings. The three-game trip featured games against two teams that were – at that time – in last place in their divisions. Then the Lightning would get those six straight at home.
Based on the schedule and opposition, it looked as though the Lightning would have a good chance in taking points out of eight of those nine games. One would figure that the road game in Washington against the red-hot Caps could be their one mulligan. The game against the Caps did turn out to be a regulation loss, but frustratingly, it was a game the Lightning felt they should have won. Or at least banked a point. They squandered a 3-0 second period lead and lost, 5-3.
Still, even with that loss to the Caps, the Lightning started the segment well, winning three of the first four games. But then they stumbled through the next four contests, picking up just three out of eight points. Saturday’s shootout win over Minnesota turned what could have been a very disappointing homestand into an average one. By going 3-2-1 during the homestand, the Lightning earned seven out of 12 points. In the nine-game segment, they went 5-3-1, good for 11 out of 18 points. Not bad, but the opportunity was there for a higher point total.
2.Why was the homestand not better? The finale against Minnesota was the team’s best overall performance, even though they endured a shaky stretch in the third period and surrendered a 2-1 lead. But that game was, in many ways, an outlier. The Minnesota game was a contest in which the Lightning started extremely well, grabbed an early lead and never trailed. In the other five games during the homestand, the Lightning did not start well. They yielded the game’s first goal in four of the five games and trailed in all five games at some point during the opening 30 minutes.
Bad starts put them in early catch-up mode. They were able to rally for victories against Ottawa and Columbus. And they were able to tie up Vancouver, Montreal and the Rangers after falling behind by a 1-0 count. But chasing early deficits is not a high percentage formula for success. Against the Canucks and Rangers, the Lightning never got the lead. In particular, the Vancouver loss was a damaging one. The Canucks came to town at the end of a long road trip, but the Lightning never forced Vancouver to play from behind.
So generally, flat starts hurt the Bolts in the homestand. What about specifics in those three games they didn’t win? Against the Canucks, the power play went just 1-10 and was a big reason why they lost that game in regulation. Isolated defensive mistakes cost them versus Montreal, including a tough shift immediately after they’d grabbed a 3-2 third period lead. And their overall performance against the Rangers was one of their worst of the past two months. It was nice, then, to see them bounce back after that disappointing Ranger loss with a strong outing against the Wild.
3.So as a whole, the homestand was an uneven one. But the Lightning dominated the special teams battle during the six games. They scored nine power play goals on 30 opportunities, good for a 30% clip. And they killed off all 17 penalties they took.
Even with those impressive numbers, the power play had some wobbly moments. As mentioned earlier, even though it accounted for a goal, the power play hurt them in the loss to Vancouver. The Bolts yielded a shorthanded goal against Ottawa. And too often, the power play didn’t generate enough shots on goal. Case in point – against the Rangers, the Lightning went 2-5 on the power play. But they recorded only three total shots during those five opportunities.
In the end, however, one has to give the power play its due credit. It helped the Bolts immensely, particularly in the wins over Ottawa and Columbus. Two early power play goals versus the Sens during a three-minute major provided the Lightning with a lead they would never relinquish. And the Bolts cashed in on two five-on-three power play chances against the Blue Jackets, then added another power play goal later on. Those tallies turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead. Also, Nikita Kucherov’s second period power play goal against Montreal was an important one. It tied the game at one and helped settle down the Lightning’s game after a sluggish first period.
Interestingly, one of their best power play chances was an unsuccessful one. It turned out to be their only chance of the game against Minnesota and it came early in the first period. The Lightning’s puck movement on that power play was as good as it’s been all season. The momentum they gained from that power play carried over into five-on-five play after the penalty ended. And it helped them produce one of their best periods of the season.
Unlike the power play, there were no such caveats with the penalty kill during the homestand. The Lightning did an outstanding job while shorthanded, not only killing the penalties they took, but also limiting the number of times they were shorthanded. The Minnesota game was the only contest in which the Lightning had fewer power play chances than the opposition.
In fact, even though the PK percentage has been in the bottom half or third of the league this year, I believe it’s been better than its percentage. The low percentage is due to the fact that the penalty kill has had some isolated terrible games. The Lightning have allowed 24 power play goals so far this year. Twelve of those have come in just four games. The remaining twelve have occurred in the other 35 contests.
If the Lightning are going to make a run in the second half of the season, the special teams will have to be a big part of it. They were a positive during the homestand. Now, as the Bolts begin their four-game road trip in Calgary on Tuesday, let’s see if the units maintain it.
4.How good was Ondrej Palat on Saturday? He was a difference-making force all over the ice. He was hard on pucks, consistently made good plays to get pucks out of the defensive zone and defended tenaciously. These are just three of the qualities that make Palat so valuable to the Lightning. He also showed no ill-effects from the injury that had kept him out of the lineup during the previous eight games. And with Palat’s return, The Triplets had one of their most dynamic games of the season.
5.Even with the Lightning not taking full advantage of the past nine-game stretch, they are still right in the mix in the Atlantic Division. That’s because, other than Florida, all of the other clubs ahead of the Lightning in the division have hit a rough patch.
Before recording the shootout win over the Lightning, Montreal had lost six in a row and 10 of 11, all in regulation. Even with their victory over Boston in the Winter Classic, the Habs have just three wins in their last 14 games.
Back on October 12, the Lightning beat the Bruins, 6-3, and Boston was 0-3-0. Over the next nine weeks, the Bruins lost only six games in regulation. But beginning with a 2-0 home loss to St. Louis on December 22, Boston has gone just 1-4-0 in its past five games.
Coming out of the Christmas break, Detroit had played 22 of its first 34 games at home. But then the schedule started to tilt in the other direction. The Wings are in the midst of a stretch that has them playing nine of out 10 games on the road. They have lost three of the first five of those games, all in regulation (and one of those losses came in that lone home game).
With their loss on Sunday in Chicago, the Ottawa Senators are just 1-4-1 in their last six. That Ottawa skid, which includes a regulation loss to the Lightning, has helped the Bolts catch Ottawa in the standings. Both teams have 42 points through 39 games played.
So even though the Lightning feel they left some potential points on the table during the 31-40 game segment that ends Tuesday in Calgary, they’ve done enough to keep pace with the Atlantic Division teams they are chasing. Now healthy, the Bolts are still just one strong stretch away from making a move up the standings.