With eight wins in the month, the Lightning set a franchise record for most victories in October. An impressive accomplishment, given that several previous Lightning teams – notably the 2002-03 and 2003-04 clubs – also got off to very fast starts. An 8-4-0 record doesn’t tell the whole story of the Lightning’s month, however.
Heading In The Right Direction, But There’s Room For Improvement:
In their first 12 games of the season, the Lightning had some exceptional performances. Their 7-2 win against Florida on October 10 was their most complete and dominating one of the season. They also had two solid games against the Buffalo Sabres. But the Lightning also mixed in a few clunkers. They played poorly in a 5-0 loss to the Boston Bruins on October 19 and in a 2-1 defeat at New Jersey last Tuesday. On October 5 in Chicago, goaltender Ben Bishop stole two points for the Lightning, but Tampa Bay was overmatched for most of the night.
In many of the other contests, the Bolts had moments when they were very good – and others when they struggled. That’s the nature of the game; there are going to be momentum swings. A team’s challenge is to minimize the number of those opposition momentum surges and shorten their duration. Obviously, a club also wants to limit any damage done when the other team is buzzing. In the majority of their October games (many of which occurred against some of the top teams in the league), the Lightning battled their way through those opposition surges and kept the game close. That was a big reason why the Bolts won two of out every three October games.
It might seem like I’m nitpicking – after all, the team is 8-4-0. And yes, a number of areas are already better than they were last year. For the most part, the Lightning are defending well, have received good goaltending, reduced the number of opposition odd-man rushes and increased their puck possession time. Also, they’ve gone 4-0 in overtime and the shootout.
But they can raise the bar higher. The reality is that most NHL teams are a bit up-and-down in the season’s first month (the San Jose Sharks and Colorado Avalanche, both off to torrid starts, might be an exception this year). The Lightning want to smooth out their bumps as the season progresses.
All teams endure clunkers, but let’s see if the team can reduce that October number in November. Tampa Bay wants fewer dips within games, too. But if the Bolts can dictate play for a greater percentage of time in games, then we’ll know that they’re continuing to head in the right direction.
Last year, despite finishing 28th overall in the league, the Lightning led the NHL with 66 third period goals. Their ability to make plays in the final period has continued this year. Unlike last year, that third period proficiency has led directly to victories. Already this season, Tampa Bay has won two games it trailed entering the third period (Chicago on October 5 and Buffalo on October 8). That matches last year’s total. The Bolts also have rallied twice to win games after they fell behind in the third period (Chicago on October 24 and Buffalo on October 26). Then there are two more wins in which they surrendered a third period lead and were momentarily tied, but still banked two points (Minnesota on October 17 and Florida on October 27).
Clearly, the Lightning don’t want to be repeatedly in those situations, but they’ve shown great resolve when they’ve needed to. When the opposition has pushed – and delivered a kick to the Lightning’s gut – the Bolts have been able to push back. That’s a terrific early-season sign; the seeds of this resiliency have already been planted and should help the players throughout the rest of the season.
Shoot, Shoot, Shoot!:
The Lightning want more shots on goal. This is not a new refrain. We heard it last year – and the year before. Through their first 12 games, the Lightning are averaging 26.3 shots per game. As of Wednesday, that ranked 29th in the league. (Last season, the Lightning were at 27.6 shots per game, 24th in the league). Head Coach Jon Cooper has said he’d like to see his team generate at least 30 shots per game – and preferably more than that.
There are two separate reasons why the Lightning struggle to generate shots. One is that on some nights, the Lightning don’t have the puck enough. This was the case in their two lowest shot output games of the season. In Chicago on October 5, the Blackhawks possessed the puck for the majority of the night and the Lightning only registered 16 shots through three periods and overtime. On Tuesday in New Jersey, the Lightning were flat – as a result, they didn’t manage the puck particularly well, which meant they didn’t have the puck much in the offensive zone. They had 17 shots – and eight of those came during a seven-minute span at the end of the second period, the only time of the night when the Lightning carried play.
The second reason has to do with passing up shooting opportunities. As Cooper has said, sometimes the Lightning opt to pass the puck rather than get the puck to the net. He makes a distinction between a “Grade A shot” and a “Grade A chance to get the puck to the net”. If it’s not a “Grade A shot”, then players try to pass to a teammate for a “Grade A shot”. But the pass often yields a less-good opportunity, not a better one, and may not result in a shot at all. Cooper would rather have players take advantage of a “Grade A chance to get the puck to the net”, even if it’s not a “Grade A shot”. A puck at the net may result in a tip or a rebound.
What’s remarkable is that the Lightning, like last year, continue to score goals at a phenomenal pace. Last year, the Lightning averaged 3.06 goals per game, third-best in the league. This season, the Bolts rank seventh with 3.17 goals per game. Of the six teams ahead of them, only Toronto averages less than 30 shots per game.
Think about this, then. If the Lightning can continue to improve their puck possession game (as detailed in the first segment, it’s a work in progress, but it is progressing), they’ll have more chances to shoot. And if the players adapt more of a shooting mentality, the shot totals will rise. If the Lightning currently are scoring more than three goals a game on less than 30 shots, how many more will they net when the shot total climbs above 30?
Players Are Listening:
What makes me believe that the shot adjustment will happen? Already this year, the players are responding to what the coaches are saying – and they are correcting problems from game-to-game.
On opening night in Boston, the Lightning’s power play struggled – and cost them the game. But by month’s end, the Lightning’s power play percentage is 24%, good for sixth in the league. After the opening night power play failures, the Lightning won their next two games on the road trip in Chicago and Buffalo, in large part because they scored a third period power play goal in each.
In a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh on October 12, the Lightning surrendered three power play goals. At that point, they had yielded seven power play goals in the past four games. Since that night, however, the Bolts have allowed only one power play goal in seven games. They ended the month with a PK percentage of 83.3%, ninth in the league. They’ve also scored two shorthanded goals this year, which is two more than last year and one more than the entire 2011-12 campaign.
Before their game against Chicago on October 24, the Lightning had gotten only one goal from a defenseman. That was an empty-netter for Sami Salo against Minnesota. Cooper demanded more shots from his blueliners. They responded. Versus the Blackhawks, the Bolts got goals from Matt Carle and Victor Hedman. Then in overtime, Radko Gudas’ point shot led to Marty St. Louis’ rebound winner. Three nights later, Gudas netted his first of the year during a victory over the Florida Panthers.
So the Lightning have shown the willingness and capacity to correct problems from game-to-game. It’s a good indication that the shot-on-goal issue will also get resolved.
Points In The Bank:
Finally, the most important takeaway from October is that the Lightning, as they work on their game, did win 8 of 12. Before the home opener, Cooper was asked about the opening season road trip (on which the Tampa Bay had gone 2-1-0) and he responded by stating that if the Lightning can win two out of every three games the rest of the way, they’ll gladly take it. So far, so good.