The Lightning are eight games into the 2013-14 regular season and while eight games does not provide a large sample size, here are a few of my early-season observations.
Quality of Opposition:
If we throw in Tampa Bay’s next game, on Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks, then six of the Bolts’ first nine games will have been against the four teams that reached the Conference Finals last year. Those teams, the Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins, also are the most recent four Stanley Cup Champs. Last week, head coach Jon Cooper quipped that no game in the NHL “is a layup”. He’s right; winning in the NHL is tough, no matter the opponent, but these four teams in particular are especially challenging to face.
All teams are going to have games in which they’re not at their best (although the top teams have, proportionally, fewer of those) and conversely, all clubs have games in which all cylinders are clicking (and the top teams have, proportionally, more of those). So depending on these variables, the result – and flow of play – between two teams can vary from night to night. For example, the Lightning played much better on opening night in Boston than they did last Saturday at home against the Bruins. The Bruins, on the other hand, looked more impressive in the second meeting than the first.
With those variables in mind – and understanding that Thursday’s game against Chicago has not yet taken place, the Lightning have hung in there pretty well with these elite teams. They’ve had a game in which they played well and didn’t get a result (Boston on October 3) and a game in which they got outplayed, but eked out a shootout win (Chicago on October 5). They competed well with the Penguins and Kings. In only the most recent game against the Bruins did they lay an egg.
The fact is that the Lightning are not yet at the level of these four teams. So Tampa Bay’s performances in these early games (excluding Saturday’s) should give them confidence that they can compete with the best in the league. But just as importantly, because moral victories don’t count in the standings, the Lightning have been able to cobble together some points in these games, winning at Chicago and against the Kings.
Not to be overlooked are the other three games Tampa Bay has played. Minnesota is a team trending up. The Wild made the playoffs last year and play a solid, structured game. Tampa Bay’s 3-1 win last Thursday was an impressive victory. The third period of that game might have been the Lightning’s best overall period of the season. They outshot the Wild, 13-2, and, once they regained the lead late in the game, hounded the puck so effectively that Minnesota couldn’t get out of its own zone for most of the closing minutes.
Tampa Bay thoroughly outplayed its other two opponents – Buffalo and Florida. It’s true that the Bolts needed an overtime goal in Buffalo to win that game, but the Lightning decisively controlled play for most of the night. The same was true against the Panthers on October 10.
When opposing coaches have commented this year on the challenges of facing the Lightning, they typically speak about the Lightning’s team speed, offensive firepower and power play proficiency. Certainly, these are – and have been - three of Tampa Bay’s assets, but this year, we’re seeing a new wrinkle as well: physical play. Physical play doesn’t necessarily just mean “fighting”, though the Bolts have had their fair share of fights so far this year. In addition, it’s finishing checks on the opposition in the hopes of wearing them down. This can happen over the course of a game or even over the course of a shift. In particular, Steven Stamkos has embraced this part of the Lightning’s game. In the win over Florida on October 10, Stamkos repeatedly punished Panther defensemen with clean, hard checks. One such check, on Dmitry Kulikov, led to a Florida turnover and a goal for Stamkos later on the same shift. This style of play also likely contributed to the lopsided third period advantage the Lightning had over Minnesota.
The tone was set on opening night, when the Lightning met the physical challenge of playing the Bruins in Boston. There were a couple of fights, but more significantly, the Lightning were credited with more hits than the Bruins. Generally, I’m not crazy about the ‘hit’ stat, since the definition seems to vary from building to building – and the home team invariably is credited with more hits than the opposition. But because of those reasons, the fact that the Bolts actually “won” the hit stat in Boston against the rugged Bruins indicates how physically they played that night.
This is becoming part of the Lightning’s identity. Certainly, when the players on the bench see Stamkos finishing his checks and forcing turnovers in the offensive zone, they’re going to follow suit when they get on the ice.
D-Zone and Five-on-Five Play:
Regular readers of this column know how often I’ve written about the Lightning’s defensive zone work so far this year. It’s been an area of concern for the Bolts in recent years.
Simply put, the better a team is in its defensive zone coverage and breakouts, the better it will be five-on-five. Special teams play often can be the difference between winning and losing. But a power play can ebb and flow at different points over a year. Even good penalty kill units go through slumps. Five-on-five play is a team’s bread-and-butter. It’s a reflection of how well a team plays its system. Consequently, the best five-on-five teams are usually at or near the top of the standings.
Outside of Saturday’s loss to the Bruins, which Coach Cooper called an “aberration”, the Lightning have been very good statistically in their five-on-five play. Before the last game, Tampa Bay had outscored the opposition, 14-7, in five-on-five play, and 2-0 in four-on-four situations.
Beyond the stats, the Lightning have looked much better on the ice in five-on-five play than in the past. As I mentioned earlier, they dominated the games against Buffalo and Florida. The first two periods against Minnesota were relatively even, but then Tampa Bay controlled the third. Understandably, the Lightning had a more uneven time against the aforementioned four elite opponents, but outside of the Boston game on Saturday, they’ve done a nice job keeping the puck out of their net during five-on-five play when the opposition has surged. Naturally, excellent goaltending has had a role in this as well.
Eight games is only a fraction of the schedule. Because the sample size is so small – and so weighted in games against top opponents – we’re still getting a read on where the Lightning are as a team vis-à-vis the rest of the league. We’ll know more as we get deeper into the schedule, but the early returns are very promising.