1.Greetings from our nation’s capital, where the Lightning wrap up their three-game road trip on Friday against the Washington Capitals. The Bolts have won the first two games on the trip, including Tuesday’s come-from-behind victory in Toronto. Can the Lightning can use that win as a “turning point” in what has been, to this point, an up-and-down season?
Of course, we’ve wondered that same thing following earlier Lightning wins this year. I wrote a column about that very subject after the Lightning’s 4-3 win over Carolina on November 1. In terms of their record, now three games over .500, the Lightning haven’t been able to use any of their prior victories as a springboard. In other words, the Lightning are still seeking a long winning streak – or, at the very least, a stretch of games in which they’re consistently banking points. The win over Toronto gave them an 8-4-0 record in their last 12 games, which is one of their better stretches of the season, but those four regulation losses, combined with hot play from other Eastern Conference teams, have prevented the Bolts from making a strong move up the standings.
What the Carolina win on November 1 did do, however, was serve as a springboard for more consistent play. I referenced this point in my column on December 1 and it bears mentioning again today. The Bolts played 13 November games and so far seven more in December. Only two of those 20 games have been stinkers – November 10th against Buffalo and November 26th at Washington. In the other 18 games, the Lightning played well enough to pick up at least one point. But, as Lightning fans well know, in many of those games they came away with no points, despite putting forth a solid performance. It’s true that the Lightning have had rough patches in some of those games (the first period in Toronto on Tuesday, a frame in which the Lightning were outshot, 16-4, would serve as an excellent example), but they’ve offset those wobbly stretches with solid play in other segments of those certain contests.
So in those aforementioned 18 games, the Lightning have played, at the very least, evenly with the opposition. Often, they’ve outplayed the opponent. And they’ve done it with a consistently strong work ethic and high compete level. But that high level of play has not been reflected in their point total. Why not? Again, as referenced in the December 1st column, there have been different factors. On some nights, it’s been leaky special teams. Or great play from the opposition goalie. Or a fluky bounce. But the biggest reason why the Lightning have failed to accumulate more points during the past six weeks has been a lack of goal production.
So I wonder if Tuesday’s win can be a springboard of sorts. Not as a path to more consistent play, because I think the Lightning have already reached that point. But instead to more consistent goal production. Confidence is an important component to goal scoring. Without it, players grip their sticks too tightly and hesitation creeps into their game. A hesitant player becomes an easier one to defend. A confident player will perform instinctively and therefore is more difficult to defend.
The way the Lightning won that game on Tuesday – rallying from a 3-1 deficit and picking up their first victory this season in a game they trailed after two periods – could help their offensive swagger. Time will tell – and the Lightning will be facing one of the best defensive teams in the league on Friday in Washington – but if the Lightning can boost their goal production, they will give themselves a much better chance of getting rewarded with a result that matches their effort.
2.One player who contributed to Tuesday’s goal total was Jonathan Marchessault. He has four goals this season, including tallies in back-to-back games. All four have come off quick wrist shots from in front of the net – either above or below the hashmarks. It’s clear that Marchessault knows where to go on the ice to score and has the ability to beat goalies cleanly with his shot.
But it’s not only his goal production that has stood out. He plays a fearless game, often winning puck battles from bigger opponents. As mentioned earlier, he goes to high traffic areas on the ice in the offensive zone. And he’s proven to be reliable in the defensive zone at getting pucks out of trouble.
With six forwards out of the lineup due to injury, Marchessault has been getting a regular shift on a line with Brian Boyle and Alex Killorn. He’s also seeing consistent power play time (and two of his four goals have come on the PP). This year, all of the recalled players from Syracuse have contributed when given a chance. But of those players that started the season in Syracuse, it’s hard to argue that there’s been a more impactful player than Marchessault.
3.Thanks to a number of teams getting hot – and some others cooling off – the standings have really tightened up in recent weeks. Could this be the year in which the “Thanksgiving” cut-line gets turned on its ear? Traditionally, most of the teams above the playoff cut-line by Thanksgiving do end up earning a postseason spot. That may still be how the regular season plays out. But maybe not.
Dallas and Washington have not suffered any serious slumps so far this year and own the top two point totals in the league. The LA Kings, after an 0-3 start, have rebounded well and comfortably lead the Pacific Division. But a couple of other high-point teams have hit a speed bump recently.
Montreal is still leading the Atlantic Division, but the Habs are just 1-5-0 in their last six games. Prior to that stretch, they’d lost only four games in regulation all season. They are heading into a tough part of their schedule, too. They host the Kings on Thursday. Then they embark on an eight-game road trip, which will include at stop in Tampa on December 28.
The New York Rangers are coming off a win against Edmonton, but had gone 2-6-2 in their 10 games before that. The skid dropped them out of first place in the Metropolitan Division.
At the same time, Detroit (8-0-5 before a regulation loss on Monday) and Boston (9-1-3 in last 13) have been charging up the Atlantic Division standings. Even though they haven’t been quite as proficient at banking points consistently during that time, Ottawa, the Lightning and Florida are right behind the Bruins and Red Wings.
In the Metropolitan Division, the New York Islanders were 8-0-2 before a regulation loss to Florida on Tuesday and the New Jersey Devils have just two regulation losses in their last 10 games. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, though not nearly as hot, are still close to the playoff cut line.
In the West, the Central Division teams, with the exception of Colorado, had gotten off to a much better start than most of the clubs in the Pacific. But in recent weeks, many of those Central clubs have slowed down. Only Dallas has maintained its pace – and the Stars now lead the division by eight points. At the same time, Colorado is 7-3-0 in its last 10 and has pulled itself out of last place in the division. Also, in the Pacific, Calgary is undefeated in December (6-0-0) and Edmonton just lost for the first time in the month (6-1-0). Only one point separates the second place San Jose Sharks from four teams tied for third. Those five clubs still have fewer points than all but two of the Central teams, but they’ve closed the gap. Even if, as many people expect, only the top three teams from the Pacific make it (meaning that both wildcards come from the Central), the race for second and third in that division should be a good one.