As well as the Lightning played during the first seven-game winning streak, which lasted from January 8 until January 21 (and was part of an overall 10-1-0 stretch from January 8 until February 5), I believe the team is playing its best hockey of the season right now.
During the current winning streak, the Lightning have been machine-like in their execution. That’s been reflected in the low number of goals against. I’m excluding, of course, the first game of the winning streak. That was the 6-5 shootout win over Winnipeg on February 18, a game in which the Lightning blew a 4-1 third period lead. That porous defensive effort came on the heels of several other leaky defensive games – the Bolts had lost four of five prior to the Winnipeg game and had yielded three or more goals in all but one of those contests.
It turned out, however, that the defensive struggles were a blip. For much of the year, the Lightning have been a top-five team in goals against. (As of Tuesday morning, they rank sixth.) So despite winning the Winnipeg game, Lightning players knew they needed to tighten back up defensively. And they have. In the six games since the Winnipeg contest, the Lightning have held the opposition to two goals or less in every one of those games, yielding a total of seven goals.
What are the Lightning doing so well defensively? First, they are managing the puck effectively, so that they are limiting turnovers in dangerous areas, places where the opposition can counter with an odd-man rush. Good puck management has helped them enjoy a puck possession advantage, too. The other team can’t score if it doesn’t have the puck. Second, they are defending well without the puck, so that the other side isn’t generating many scoring chances, even if it is producing shots on goal. And third, when there have been breakdowns – or the other side has successfully surged on the Lightning and grabbed momentum – Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy have provided key saves at crucial times. Specifically, I’m referencing the final five minutes of the Lightning’s win in Carolina on February 21, when Bishop made nine consecutive saves to preserve what was, at the time, a one-goal Lightning lead. Also, on Monday in Toronto, Vasilevskiy came up with critical stops during the final two periods when the Lightning were playing on tired legs.
Coupled with sound defensive play has been consistent offensive production. Much of the Lightning’s early season struggles had to do with an inability to score consistently. But they’ve turned those numbers around since the calendar changed to 2016. The Lightning, after spending much of the season in the bottom third of the league in goals scored per game, have worked their way into the top 10. During the current winning streak, the Lightning have received tremendous production from the line of Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan and Alex Killorn. Jon Cooper reassembled that unit in the game before the Winnipeg contest and they’ve been the team’s hottest line during the streak. While they didn’t produce a point in Monday’s victory at Toronto, they’ve still combined to post 28 points in the eight games they’ve been together as a line.
Solid team defense, great goaltending and consistent offensive production have made the Lightning a formidable opponent. But still, the quality of their wins during the streak is impressive. After beating Winnipeg, the Lightning began a stretch of games in which they would play six of seven on the road. That stretch ends Thursday in Ottawa. So the seven-game win streak has included five straight road victories. The Bolts have wins in Pittsburgh, Carolina and New Jersey – those three teams were right behind the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Standings when those games were played. They also have won in Boston, after having entered that game tied with the Bruins for second place in the Atlantic Division. Four of the road games have come in two separate sets of back-to-backs and the Lightning swept both sets.
We don’t know how the final 19 regular season games are going to unfold. Obviously, the Lightning will need to maintain this high level of play. But it looks as though the Lightning are hitting their stride at just the right time – during the stretch run of the regular season.
2.There were 19 trades made on Monday during the NHL’s deadline day. Compared to some recent years, that number is not appreciably low. In 2014-15, there were 24 trades. And 20 the year before. But with a couple of exceptions, many of the trades on Monday involved depth players or even minor leaguers, not marquee stars. In other words, deadline day felt quiet. Maybe part of that quietness had to do with the noise generated in the days leading up to Monday. Two of the biggest names that moved arrived with their new teams before Monday: Andrew Ladd and Eric Staal.
I’m not one to try to predict “winners” and “losers” from deadline day. I’ve never been a very good fortune teller, so I tend to stay away from such speculation. Time will tell how these deals work out for the teams involved. I did, however, take note of which teams seemed to be “sellers” at the deadline. It’s not surprising that a team like Toronto, which will clearly miss the playoffs this year, is looking to free up cap space and wants to accumulate draft picks, ended up trading players like James Reimer and Roman Polak. A bit more surprising was the fact that Carolina, New Jersey and Montreal were active sellers. I understand that Carolina’s trade of Eric Staal had a long-term cap management component, but the Hurricanes also dealt Kris Versteeg, who was playing on their top line, and John-Michael Liles, who was one of their top four defensemen. New Jersey dealt Lee Stempniak, one of their leading scorers. And Montreal traded Dale Weise, Tomas Fleishmann and Devante Smith-Pelley (a player they acquired at last year’s deadline).
What made those deals so interesting is that all three of those teams are still within striking distance of an Eastern Conference wildcard spot. It’s true that making up five to seven points – and climbing over several teams in the process – is difficult. Also, Carolina and New Jersey had lost some games in the days leading up to the deadline. But, at least mathematically, the writing isn’t yet on the wall for those clubs.
3.The writing may not be on the wall, but one has to wonder how those teams, now that they’ve reduced rather than added at the deadline, will react. As the Lightning know well, one small streak – either good or bad – can quickly change the landscape of the standings. As mentioned earlier, before their current seven-game win streak, the Lightning had lost four of five and had fallen into ninth place, below the playoff cut line. Following Monday’s win in Toronto, the Bolts are tied with the Florida Panthers for first place in the Atlantic. So teams like the Devils, Hurricanes, Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are looking for the four or five game winning streak that could propel them up the standings.
How does this affect the Lightning? General Manager Steve Yzerman, during a Tuesday morning radio interview on 620 WDAE, said the Lightning’s first objective is to make the playoffs. If they can do that, then the new objective to finish as high as they can in the standings before the playoffs begin.
So for now, the Bolts are keeping their eye on the point total of the teams below the playoff cut line in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning want as much separation from those clubs as possible. As of Tuesday, the Lightning have a nine-point lead on the ninth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers. The spread is 11 points over the Devils and 12 against the Senators and Hurricanes. The lead is a healthy one for the Lightning, but the deficit isn’t insurmountable for any of those clubs.
Furthermore, take a look at the Lightning’s next five games: at Ottawa, Carolina, at Philadelphia, Boston, Philadelphia. All five are chasing the Lightning. And four currently reside below that playoff cut line. So the outcomes of these upcoming games will determine if the Lightning will make their lead over those clubs even wider. Or if the gap narrows.