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Mishkin's Musings: Four musings on a Monday in St. Louis

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Greetings from St. Louis, where the Lightning are getting ready for Tuesday’s game against the Blues. Here are four thoughts about the NHL’s first three weeks of the regular season.

1.During Friday’s morning press conference before the Lightning game in Winnipeg, Jets head coach Paul Maurice was asked about how three-on-three OT has already evolved around the league. (The Jets, at that point, hadn’t played an OT game – they would later that night against the Lightning – but Maurice obviously had viewed overtime games involving other teams). The reporter noted that, since that first frenetic, wide-open OT game between the Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers on October 8, teams had gotten more conservative in how they approached three-on-three. In the OT games since that first one, teams seemed more focused on preventing counter opportunities for the other team. In other words, they were attempting to bring a semblance of order to a potentially chaotic situation. (As an example, players have become more careful to ensure shots didn’t miss the net, since a wild ricochet could mean a scoring chance for the other side.) Maurice replied that players always make adjustments to any new rule or game situation. In this case, players are figuring out what the high-risk plays are in three-on-three. Then, they are making adjustments to minimize decisions that might hurt their team.

But the OT games haven’t become just passive sessions in which teams simply control the puck and patiently wait for a chance. I’m basing this observation not only on the four OT games the Lightning have played, but also on the fact that, even with teams making adjustments, the majority of OT games aren’t reaching the shootout. As of Monday, the league has had 24 games go to overtime. Sixteen of those, or two-thirds, have ended in OT. So what gives? Is the conservative approach not working, because of so much open ice? Or are teams still taking some chances to win games in OT?

In watching the three OT games on this Lightning road trip, I’ve seen some trends develop. In Nashville last Tuesday, the Lightning and Predators did play a conservative five minutes of three-on-three. There was plenty of puck possession, but each team only posted one shot on net in the OT. There were some dangerous looks, especially for the Lightning, but much of the five-minute session was spent with one team controlling the puck and the other maintaining tight coverage.

In the Lightning’s next two overtime games, however, it was different story. In Winnipeg on Friday, the Lightning won the opening faceoff, brought the puck into the Winnipeg end and attacked the net. Victor Hedman passed the puck to Ondrej Palat in the slot. Rather than protecting the puck and curling back to the point or taking it to the corner, Palat redirected the puck on net. Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec made the save and the rebound led to a Bryan Little breakaway. After Ben Bishop stopped Little, the puck went to the side boards in the Lightning end. Hedman and Andrew Ladd battled for the puck. If he were playing it conservatively, Hedman might have conceded possession to Ladd and retreated to a defensive posture. Instead, he tried to take the puck away and counter. Hedman thought he had it and started leaving the defensive zone. Instead, Ladd, at the last instant, swiped back the puck. Even though Ladd was still inside the Lightning zone, he was facing the blue line. As he turned back toward the Lightning net, Steven Stamkos closed on him and took the puck away. Stamkos then broke past Ladd, creating a three-on-one for the Lightning. After a tic-tac-toe passing sequence, Palat scored the winner. But the key play was made back at the defensive blue line. Once Hedman lost the puck, Stamkos could have backed off. True, it would have been a two-on-one for Ladd and Little, but Stamkos would have been in a position to try to defend it. But Stamkos didn’t back off. Of course, if Ladd could have gotten around Stamkos, he and Little would have had a two-on-zero. But Stamkos did get the puck, so the play unfolded differently. Ultimately, in just 36 seconds of overtime, all three Lightning players on the ice, at different points, made aggressive decisions. All three of those choices could have, potentially, cost them the game. But they also gave the Lightning a better chance to win the game. And ultimately, it worked out.

The next night in Chicago, overtime only lasted 17 seconds, so, obviously, there weren’t as many plays. But Jonathan Toews did make an important decision at center ice. He saw a potential opening between Valtteri Filppula and Anton Stralman and opted to attack. He was able to split the two, which led to a scoring chance and a rebound goal. If Toews had been stripped of the puck, however, the Lightning would have had a three-on-two counter opportunity. As in Friday’s game at Winnipeg, an aggressive decision benefitted the winning club.

So in these early weeks of the season, overtime hasn’t become totally passive. As Maurice stated, it’s true that teams may be more wary of taking low percentage shots or ones that miss the net. But players are still trying to make plays. And in the end, that’s a good thing. Does it matter if a game ends in OT or the shootout? The point distribution is the same. In fact, OT wins could be more valuable, because shootout victories don’t count in the first tiebreaker, which is number of wins. For a club that has struggledn in the shootout – like the Lightning have recently – it might as well try to win the game in overtime. Every OT, like every game, has a different storyline. Some may be more wide-open than others. But so far, anyway, most of the NHL OT games are ending before the shootout – and that’s what the league wanted when it instituted the three-on-three.

2.Before the Lightning’s game in Buffalo on October 10, Jon Cooper made an interesting prediction. He speculated that, compared to last season, it won’t take as many points for teams to qualify for the playoffs. Last year, the second wildcard team in the East was Pittsburgh, which posted 98 points. Among Western playoff teams, Calgary had the fewest points with 97. Boston, with 96 points, and Los Angeles, with 95 points, both missed the playoffs. This was notable because in previous seasons, 95 points were enough to get in. In 2013-14, Detroit and Columbus in the East both qualified with 93 points. In the West, Dallas made it with 91 points. If you look back to 2011-12 (skipping the shortened 2012-13 season), Ottawa and Washington both made it in the East with 92 points. LA was the final seed in the West with 95 points, but the Kings could have made it with as few as 91 points.

Anyway, Cooper’s point was that last year, the three weakest teams in the league collectively were, by comparison, weaker than usual. So the other teams picked up more points. He’s right. In 2014-15, Buffalo (54 points), Arizona (56 points) and Edmonton (62 points) had the lowest point totals. In 2013-14, Buffalo (52 points), Florida (66 points) and Edmonton (67 points) earned 13 more points than last year’s three cellar dwellers. The reason he mentioned it when the Lightning were about to play the Sabres was that he thinks Buffalo, Arizona and Edmonton will be more competitive this year. If those teams earn more points, there will be fewer for the other 27 clubs. So the playoff cut line in both Conferences might revert to a point total in the low 90s.

It seems that Cooper also is on the mark with his assessment of those three teams. Buffalo, which has played the Lightning twice already, is improved, even if its 2-6 record doesn’t yet reflect it. The same for the Oilers, who now have Connor McDavid on their roster. Arizona has gotten off to a good start.

But I’m not sure anyone knew early last season that the Sabres, Coyotes and Oilers would accumulate so few points. Losing can be contagious and, if a team is deemed out of it around the trading deadline, a GM might move veteran players, weakening the club even more. It may not be Buffalo, Arizona or Edmonton, but it’s possible another couple of clubs might see the wheels come off this year. If that happens, perhaps once again 96 points won’t be enough to get into postseason.

3.It’s generally accepted that the opening eight weeks of the season are critical in separating the playoff-bound teams from those destined to stay on the outside. Since the 2005-06 season, the first for the shootout (meaning every OT game was a “three-point game”), the vast majority of teams residing in a playoff position by Thanksgiving end up qualifying for the postseason. Not that it’s impossible for those out of a playoff spot to change their fortunes after Thanksgiving, but bad starts can doom a club.

A couple of teams that started slowly have rebounded already. Los Angeles began the season with three straight losses, all at home. But the Kings have now won five straight and are tied for first in their division. New Jersey was 0-3-1 after four games, but is now 4-3-1.

Others, however, have continued to struggle after a bad first week. It’s clear that Columbus, which started the season with eight straight losses and has already made a coaching change, is in big trouble. The same could be true for last year’s upstart Calgary Flames. Anaheim, surprisingly, is also off to a slow start.

If there’s a saving grace for these teams, it’s the NHL’s current playoff format. The top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs, regardless of point totals. (As mentioned above, Calgary had the lowest point total of any playoff team last year. But Calgary didn’t have to qualify as a wildcard, because it finished third in this division). So a team can turn things around a little more quickly if its divisional foes aren’t gaining much separation. This could help out the Ducks in the Pacific Division – the division-leading Kings and San Jose Sharks are just 5-3-1 so far. In the last two seasons, the Metropolitan Division teams have started a bit slowly – case in point, the President Trophy-winning New York Rangers were only a game over .500 at Thanksgiving last year. This season, however, it looks as though the Rangers (14 points), Washington Capitals (12 points) and New York Islanders (11 points) are poised to put some distance between themselves and the clubs near the bottom of the division.

We are a month from Thanksgiving, so based on that arbitrary, unofficial playoff cut line, there’s still time for the struggling clubs to close the gap. But there’s no doubt there’s a sense of urgency in those locker rooms – already.

4.Many regard the Central Division as the league’s toughest. Of the seven teams in the Central, only Colorado is under .500. The other six clubs have already hit double-digit point totals. The Lightning, currently on a four-game road swing within the Central, knew ahead of time how challenging this trip would be. And while the competition has been tough, the Lightning already have banked four points through three games. They have a chance to make it an extremely successful trip if they can beat the Blues on Tuesday.

Since the NHL changed the divisional and playoff format in 2013-14, the Central has sent five teams to the playoffs, meaning that the division has claimed both wildcard spots in each of the past two seasons. This year, the Central looks even stronger, so many expect five teams to qualify again.

But only five – at most – can get in. That’s because a minimum of three teams from the Pacific will qualify, so at least two Central clubs won’t make it. Which teams will fall below the cut line? That’s a hard one to predict.

There’s even a chance that five might not qualify from the Central. As of Monday, Central clubs had played each other only five times. In other words, those teams have racked up most of their points against clubs from other divisions. That’s a testament to the division’s overall prowess, but soon, those clubs will be seeing each other with regularity. If the teams are as evenly-matched as they seem, it’s going to be difficult for them to gain separation. Either from each other or, potentially, from the rest of the Western Conference. Conversely, in the Pacific, if four teams do separate themselves substantially from the other three, the fourth place Pacific club may have enough points to earn a wildcard slot. So for the Central teams, divisional games will be critically important and the outcome of those divisional games could be a big factor in determining how the West’s playoff picture unfolds.

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