Well, yes and no. League-wide, by the end of play on Monday, the season was one-quarter over. For individual teams, it was a different story. Some had played more than 20 games, some less. The Lightning, thanks in part to their trip to Sweden (a schedule segment in which they only played twice in a 12-day span), were at a league-low 17 games played. After last night's loss to the Blues, they're at 18, tied with the New York Rangers for the fewest in the NHL.
Still, the Lightning's own quarter mark approaches. And they're looking up at five teams ahead of them in the Atlantic Division. What are we to make of their place in the standings?
Naturally, the Lightning would like to be higher, with more points in the bank. But at this point, gauging their position against other teams (clubs that have played more games) isn't the most useful way to look at their position.
I've written about this benchmark before, notably in the 2016-17 season, when the Lightning, finishing with 94 points, missed the playoffs by a single point. In most seasons, 96 points will qualify a team for the playoffs. (In that 2016-17 campaign, both Boston and Toronto made it with 95 points). Gaining 12 points in every 10-game segment gets a club to 96 points after 80 games. Then there are still the two additional games before the regular season ends.
After 10 games this season, the Lightning, with a 5-3-2 record, had 12 points. In a press conference at the time, Jon Cooper even acknowledged hitting the benchmark. In this 10-game segment, they had earned eight points after six games. Losing the last two hasn't helped. Now, to maintain playoff pace, they'll need wins on Thursday and Saturday. Or else they'll have to make up those points later on.
So the Lightning are hanging in there. What about the rest of the division? In the context of the 12-in-10 pace, only the Bruins, Panthers, Canadiens had reached at least 24 points after 20 games. Of those three, just the Bruins have significant "bonus points" - they're currently at 31 points after 21 games. But it's not as if the rest of the division has vaulted far ahead - those other Atlantic Division clubs in front of the Lightning are either just above - or just below - playoff pace.
Until the Lightning make up some of these games played, the most useful way to look at their position is, like a marathon runner checking mile-split times, the pace at which they're gaining points.
Video Review: That aforementioned league press release listed a variety of numbers that painted a picture of the opening quarter. This one jumped out at me. As of Tuesday morning, there had been 40 video review challenges. That was 32% fewer than at the same point last year (when there were 59). At the same time, the success rate of challenges has jumped from 32% to 58%.
The league expanded video review this season to include "game stoppages" - plays that should have resulted in a whistle, but didn't. A high stick, hand pass, puck in netting, etc. Also new this year is the price a team must pay for any unsuccessful challenge. Last year, a failed challenge on an offside resulted in a two-minute minor, but the goalie interference challenge cost a timeout. Now, any unsuccessful challenge results in a penalty. A second failed challenge within a game leads to a double minor.
So while the league has created more potential challenge opportunities for teams, they've also increased the stakes for failed challenges. The two changes may not seem congruent, but they are consistent with the league's wishes. The NHL wants to have a mechanism in place to correct a missed call. But also, the league hopes to decrease the number of challenges - helping game flow.
These early numbers show that the both objectives are being met. The number of challenges is down, while the ratio of successful challenges has gone up.
Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, the Lightning have contributed to the 42% of unsuccessful challenges. They've missed on two high stick challenges and one offside challenge. I never did see a clear replay of the high stick challenge from Saturday's game against Winnipeg. But the other two were close - particularly the offside challenge during the Global Series. I don't know about some of these other challenges that make up the successful 58%, but I wonder if they fall into a "beyond a shadow of a doubt" rather than a "close-call" category.
Seeing Old Friends: The broadcasting community within the hockey world is a close one. We connect when the teams we represent face off - many of us have worked for the same club for many years, even decades. Some of us go back to our days in the minor leagues, where we started our broadcasting careers.
This Lightning trip to St. Louis and Chicago means catching up with two such colleagues. Chris Kerber (Blues radio play-by-play) and I first met in 1996. I was broadcasting for the AHL's Hershey Bears. He called games for the Springfield Falcons. We had just missed each other in the ECHL. I had been with Johnstown (PA) from 1991-94. He did the games for the Birmingham (AL) Bulls from 1994-96. Hershey and Springfield were not in the same division, so we didn't see each other frequently, but we hit it off from the start. In 2000, he got the job with the Blues. Two years later, I joined the Lightning. Similar to our minor league days, we only see each other twice a year, but every time we get a chance to catch up, it's like no time has passed.
John Wiedeman (Blackhawks radio play-by-play) was the broadcaster for the AHL's Worcester IceCats in the mid-90s. It's been a friendship that's lasted nearly 25 years. We arrived in the NHL around the same time - he was with the Islanders before moving to the 'Hawks in the late 2000s. I'm looking forward to chatting with him tomorrow.
Who's the NHL broadcaster I've known the longest? That would be Dan Rusanowsky (San Jose radio play-by-play), who was doing games for the AHL's New Haven Nighthawks when I was an undergrad at Yale.
Joe Beninati (Washington TV play-by-play) was with the Providence Bruins in the early 90s when Johnstown was their ECHL affiliate. He graciously listed to a demo of mine and gave me excellent feedback. I still appreciate it.
Dave Goucher (Vegas TV play-by-play, previously Boston radio play-by-play) got the broadcasting job with the ECHL's Wheeling Thunderbirds in 1993. Johnstown was a divisional opponent, so we got to know each other well during that season. By the next fall, I was in Hershey. He arrived in Providence the following year. Like Chris Kerber, he made the NHL jump in 2000.
John Walton (Washington radio play-by-play) and I spent a lot of time together when he was with the AHL's Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. Cincinnati and Hershey played in the same division for several years, which often meant 12 games in a season series. When I got the job with the Lightning in 2002, he took over in Hershey, where he stayed for the next nine years before moving up to the Capitals.
This is just a small sampling. During my time in the NHL, I've enjoyed getting to know all of the other broadcasters and talking with them when the league schedule put us in the same arena.
I've loved being able to call hockey games as a career. A big added benefit has been the friendships I've made during this journey.