Some thoughts on the Lightning’s 2-1-1 homestand …
As referenced in last week’s column, the Lightning want to improve upon their team GAA, which, at 2.55 GA/G last year, ranked 11th in the league. In their first four games, the Bolts allowed only seven goals (not including the shootout goal against Ottawa). This was a very encouraging sign. The opposition didn’t eclipse two goals scored in any of the four contests.
What accounted for this stingy defensive number? For most of those games, the Lightning played well without the puck, which limited opposition scoring chances. It wasn’t a completely clean slate, as two third period breakdowns on Saturday against Ottawa led to a couple of Senators goals. But outside of those hiccups, the Lightning’s structure was sound. The coaching staff made some tweaks to the team’s system during the offseason and spent a good portion of training camp implementing those changes. At this early point in the season, it looks as though the players have absorbed those lessons well.
Another factor in the team’s defensive success was the penalty kill. The Lightning ranked tied for 23rd in PK percentage last year. Jon Cooper has indicated he’d like the PK percentage to vault into the top 10, a goal he believes is reachable. Through four games, the Bolts have killed 12 of 13 penalties. Unfortunately, the one goal they allowed turned out to be the difference in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to New Jersey, but as a whole, the penalty killers have done an outstanding job. Also helping the percentage was the team’s discipline in five-on-five play. Limiting the volume of kills to about three a game made the kills they did have more manageable, because the penalty killers weren’t being overtaxed.
And naturally, a team’s GAA is only as good as its goaltender’s play. Both Ben Bishop and Evgeni Nabokov provided solid netminding. There were no soft goals allowed and both players tossed in some spectacular stops to accompany the routine ones. It was great to see Bishop pick up right where he left off last year. In Nabokov, the Bolts felt they were getting a steady, experienced backup – and the veteran goalie played very well (and gave the Lightning a chance to win) Tuesday against the Devils.
Even-Strength Offense and Power Play
After the Lightning’s first game, a 3-2 OT win over the Florida Panthers, coach Cooper stated he wasn’t satisfied with the number of five-on-five chances the Lightning generated. (All three goals scored in that game were PPG). Cooper wanted more shots, more traffic, more scoring chances and, ultimately, more goals. It’s true that the Lightning netted seven in their win over Montreal last Monday, including five that were tallied at even-strength, but they scored only two even-strength goals in the other three contests combined (including the Florida game).
But following Tuesday’s game, Cooper made a distinction between the Florida game and what he saw in the subsequent low output games against Ottawa and New Jersey. In those other two games, the Lightning did do a better job of creating scoring chances. In particular, the team’s play in the second period against Ottawa and the opening half of the first versus the Devils was very crisp. The problem was that they didn’t convert on many of those opportunities. Opposing goalies Robin Lehner and Cory Schneider had a lot to do with those pucks staying out of the net. At other times, players just missed open nets or couldn’t settle down bouncing pucks when they had a chance to finish. There is still work to be done – the team did tend to pass up shots at points in these games – but if the club can continue to produce scoring chances, the even-strength goals will eventually follow (as they did in frequently against Montreal).
The good news was that the power play was able to pick up some of the offensive slack. As he stated about the PK, Cooper also wants the power play percentage to move into the top ten (the PP was ranked 13th last year). So far, so good. The Bolts tallied six man-advantage goals during the homestand. They also looked dangerous on several of the other unsuccessful opportunities. The power play won them the game on opening night and helped them earn a point against Ottawa.
Five Out Of Eight Points
Ultimately, the name of the game is to “munch” points, as Cooper is fond of saying. The Lightning had picked up five out of six points heading into the final game of the homestand, so that loss to the Devils turned what could have been a great homestand into a good one. Afterwards, Cooper admitted that it’s easy to get “greedy” when you’ve already gotten five out of six points, but he also stated that “five points are better than zero”. Now, heading out on a five-game road trip, the Bolts will look to keep munching points.