It’s been a bit of an up-and-down start for the Lightning. There have been some positives – and other areas the team would like to sharpen. Here are some takeaways from the season’s first six games.
Starts and Finishes: Lightning players and coaches have already spoken about how they want to begin games better. The Bolts have gotten off to a bumpy start in three of the six games: versus Buffalo both on October 10 and last Saturday and also at Boston on October 12. The start in that first Buffalo game was the least shaky of the three – and the only one of those three in which the Lightning didn’t fall behind. In the other two, however, the Lightning’s flat start put them behind the eight-ball. Boston jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead in the opening 11:02. Versus the Sabres last Saturday, the Lightning were outshot, 16-3, in the first period, and felt fortunate that the deficit was only 1-0 after 20 minutes.
Reasons for these uneven starts? Part of it might be due to the fact that opponents are gearing up to play the Lightning, the defending Eastern Conference Champs. As mentioned earlier, Lightning players have talked about the need to be prepared for these motivated opponents throughout the year. Perhaps now that they’ve experienced it first-hand, they’ll be able to minimize the types of starts we’ve seen in some of these early games.
Interestingly, though, the tough starts haven’t cost the Lightning. In all three of those aforementioned games, the Lightning ended up winning the contest. By contrast, in the two games they’ve lost (at Detroit on October 13 and versus Dallas on October 15), the Lightning had two of their better starts. They controlled most of the first period play in the Detroit game, but couldn’t take the lead. Against the Stars, the Lightning came out flying and took an early 1-0 advantage, but couldn’t maintain it.
Still, as teams settle into the flow of the regular season and defenses start clamping down, it’ll be more difficult for clubs to rally from early deficits. So consistently starting games well is definitely a priority for the Lightning.
In terms of closing out teams, though, the Lightning have done well so far. In particular, the road wins in Buffalo and Boston were punctuated with excellent third period performances. In both games, the Lightning took a one-goal lead into the third and effectively shut down the opposition. Not only did the Lightning protect their one-goal lead, they added to it - and won both games by an identical three-goal margin. Those insurance tallies sucked the life out of their opponents.
Line Combinations And Contributions: During Saturday’s game against Buffalo, head coach Jon Cooper shuffled his forward lines, looking for an offensive spark. We’ll have to see if he keeps those different line combinations when the Bolts face Nashville on Tuesday. But for most of the first six games, the Lightning have utilized essentially the same forward units.
One of the biggest contributors has been the line of Vladdy Namestnikov, Brian Boyle and J.T. Brown. Typically, what coaches want from a “fourth line” is a solid defensive performance. Those three players, all with “plus” ratings this year, have provided more than just solid “D” though. They’ve been difference-makers in a handful of games so far. They’ve consistently been able to possess pucks and control play in the offensive zone. (On Saturday, they were the one Lightning line that generated some activity in the Buffalo zone during the rough first period). And they’ve scored some big goals. Boyle’s first period tally in Boston, which cut the Bruins’ lead to 2-1, completely shifted momentum and Lightning tied the score shortly thereafter. Namestnikov’s second period goal against Buffalo on Saturday tied the score at one.
While they were split up as a unit on Saturday, the line of Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Drouin and Ryan Callahan has also contributed some important points. Stamkos’ first goal of the season was a critical third period insurance tally in Buffalo on October 10. He second, which was the 500th regular season point of his NHL career, broke a 3-3 tie in Boston on October 12 and turned out to be the game-winner. Drouin has a team-leading five assists and six points and the three players on the line have a combined 15 points.
The “Triplets” line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov has contributed on the power play, but the players have not been able to match the even-strength totals of those other two lines. They have seven points between them – and five of those have come on the power play. The other two points were recorded on Kucherov’s goal in Buffalo, which was scored just as a power play ended. Opposing defenders are zeroed in on the Triplets, who have had little time and space in which to operate so far this year. Yet the three players are still accumulating good scoring chances in every game. Pucks are just bouncing off sticks or goalies are making key saves. It feels as though they are about to break out. Stay tuned.
Ben Being Ben: Goaltender Ben Bishop has started each of the Lightning’s first six games. In five of those six, he’s been his usual terrific self. (He admittedly had an off-night against Dallas on October 15). Bishop has provided key saves at crucial times and repeatedly bailed out his teammates when they’ve endured one of those aforementioned dips in play. Simply put, Bishop has given his team a chance to win nearly every night, no matter how well or poorly the Lightning are playing in front of him.
Special Teams: The penalty kill has struggled in some of the early games. The worst of those came in Boston, where the Bruins netted three power play goals on October 12. Those goals against didn’t hurt the Lightning, though, who ended up winning 6-3. But in both of their losses this year, the Lightning surrendered key power play goals at crucial times. Detroit broke a scoreless tie with a power play goal late in the second. And Dallas netted two man advantage goals on October 15. The first of those gave them the lead (for good, as it turned out). The second ended up being the game-winner.
But special teams can be streaky and hopefully, the Lightning are about to go on a better run. In practice on the day after the Dallas game, the Lightning shored up the positioning for their penalty killers. Then on Saturday against Buffalo, the Bolts were a perfect 3-3 on the PK. That total includes two crucial kills in the third period when the score was tied at one.
At times, the power play has looked a little disjointed. It struggled against Detroit and Dallas and, as a result, the Lightning mixed up the two units before Saturday’s game against Buffalo. But as a whole, the power play has been a significant part of the Lightning’s early season victories. In the opener against Philadelphia, Callahan tied the game at 2 with a power play goal late in the second period. In Buffalo on October 10, Kucherov’s goal was scored just as a power play ended. It broke a 1-1 tie and was the eventual game-winner. Likewise for Stamkos’ PPG against the Bruins – it snapped a 3-3 tie late in the second. And Alex Killorn’s game-winning PPG on Saturday came with just over four minutes left in the third period.
All Things Considered …: As detailed, the Lightning do want to clean up parts of their game and, in the process, produce a full 60-minute performance. They’ll need to be sound in their defensive structure and have to limit turnovers, especially on the four-game trip that begins Tuesday in Nashville. They’ll be facing four strong opponents, teams that have combined to post a record of 16-7-0 thus far. So there won’t be much of a margin for error.
But all things considered, a 4-2-0 record is a good start. It’s been well documented how the first eight weeks of the season are critical in determining which teams end up making the playoffs. Now, with eight of the next 10 on the road, the Lightning must find a way to keep banking points.