Process vs. Result: For the Lightning so far this season, there has been an inverse relationship between the process (how they've played) and the result. Their best overall performance came in Saturday's regulation loss at Florida. In their worst - Sunday's game at Carolina - they salvaged a point. And in last Thursday's win over the Panthers, they prevailed despite enduring a rough opening 30 minutes.
If one were to script a "perfect" performance, what would it look like? How a team plays with the puck contributes to defense. Strong puck management reduces turnovers and increases puck possession, so you're limiting the amount of time the opposition has to go on the attack. Similarly, offense is tied to how a team plays without the puck. Solid defensive structure can force turnovers and fuel your transition. The Lightning want to play a speed game. When things are clicking, they're passing the puck crisply, limiting turnovers, and forcing the opponent back on its heels. They're winning 50-50 puck battles. They're possessing the puck in the offensive zone, retrieving loose pucks to maintain that possession, and using their high-end ability to create scoring chances. At the same time, they're playing with a tight, defensive structure, so the opponent has little time and space to generate offense of its own. When all of that comes together, the Lightning will be dominating puck possession.
Video: TBL@FLA: Joseph pots backhander on the rush
Of course, there's another team on the ice. It also is trying to execute a game plan. So every contest becomes a tug-of-war, with each side attempting to impose its will on the other.
What has been most apparent when the Lightning have struggled during five-on-five play this year is their lack of puck possession. They've dealt with long stretches in which they've ceded possession time, so they haven't been able to go on the attack. At one point in the second period on Opening Night, they were being outshot, 24-10, for the game. On Sunday in Carolina, they managed just two total shots during the final two periods and overtime. Obviously, the Hurricanes decisively won the "tug-of-war".
Conversely, on Saturday in Sunrise, the Lightning dictated even-strength action for the majority of the night. The game was lost due to an 11-minute span in which they yielded four goals. But the way they played on Saturday was much closer to the aforementioned ideal script.
Usually, the process and result align with one another - a strong performance equates to a win and vice-versa. Which means the Bolts need to produce more games like Saturday's.
Special Teams: Lightning players and coaches spoke about the need this season to reduce the number of penalties leading to opposition power plays. We haven't seen that correction yet. The Lightning have been shorthanded 12 times through the first three games. And, other than on Opening Night, the PK hasn't been able to shut the door. On Saturday, three consecutive second period penalties helped Florida break open a scoreless tie with two power play goals. Carolina rallied from a 3-1 deficit with single power play goals in the second and third periods.
The power play, other than two unsuccessful opportunities on Sunday, has been sharp. Those two misses in Raleigh were costly, though. Had the Lightning scored on just one of them (leading 3-1 in the second and later, 3-2 in the third), they would have greatly diminished Carolina's comeback chances.
Still, the power play factored into the Opening Night win, scoring once and adding two other goals moments after a power play ended. On Saturday, the Lightning only had a single power play, but almost made the most of it. Sergei Bobrovsky, with one of his best saves of the game, robbed Nikita Kucherov. And before the two quiet power plays on Sunday, the Lightning did score a first period power play goal against the Hurricanes.
Video: FLA@TBL: Shattenkirk pots goal in Lightning debut
Kevin Shattenkirk has added an important element on the second unit. His ability to get his shots through to the net from the point has led directly to two goals. On the first unit, the addition of Pat Maroon has given the Lightning a valuable net-front presence. He combines strength - he stands his ground next to the goalie - and finesse - he's got great hands, so he's able put his stick on rebounds and force the goalie to make additional saves.
Goaltending: It's been excellent so far. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 35 saves on Thursday and Curtis McIlhinney had 40 stops on Sunday. Thanks to the goalies, the Lightning offset their possession struggles in those games.
At the End of the Day: The bottom line is that the Lightning have three points. I wrote in an earlier column about the tough schedule to open the season. Just four games at Amalie Arena in the first 15.
So yes, the Lightning have plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to owning more consistent puck possession and reducing shorthanded situations. But at least they put those three points in the bank during what was, at least some of the time, a wobbly first week of the season.