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Mishkin's Musings: Three storylines

Dave Mishkin lists a bounce back mentality, fast start and renewed defensive focus as three keys to the Lightning's 2019-20 season

by Dave Mishkin / TampaBayLightning.com

Certainly, there are more than three storylines for the Lightning as they prepare to begin the 2019-20 regular season. But these, posted here in the form of questions, stand out.

Will there be hunger to the Lightning's game?
Last season was historic. A 62-win regular season followed by a four-game sweep and a shocking exit in the first round of the playoffs. Unprecedented. Which means we don't know how a team in that scenario responds in the following season.

There's reason to believe that the Lightning will use last year's playoff disappointment as fuel for this season. They've done it before. In the 2013-14 campaign, the Bolts made the playoffs but were swept in the first round by Montreal. The next season, 2014-15, Tampa Bay produced another strong regular season, qualified for the playoffs, and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. In 2016-17, the Lightning missed the playoffs by a single point. In 2017-18, they bounced back, winning 54 games and grabbing the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

Video: Ready if You Are

But this Lightning team faces a different challenge. Last year, they posted one of the best regular seasons in NHL history and, once the playoffs began, it didn't matter. The regular season does matter, however. In order to compete for the Stanley Cup, first you have to get into the playoffs. The Lightning learned the hard way in 2016-17 how difficult it can be to qualify for the postseason in today's parity-driven NHL.

Hopefully, as they did in 2014-15 and 2017-18, the Lightning will play with hunger. The early indications are that they have that fire in their bellies - many players arrived earlier than usual and training camp has been crisp and competitive. Their captain has set the right tone. On the first day of camp, Steven Stamkos met with the media and spoke about the need to "not think so far ahead … let's just get back to the playoffs and we'll do it better this time. It's too tough of a league to think that way." 

Can the Lightning successfully navigate the early part of the schedule?
One of the reasons why the Lightning did so well during the past two regular seasons is that they posted an excellent October record. The quick start to the season put the Lightning near or at the top of the standings and eliminated the need for them to play catch-up.

This year, the Lightning open at home against Florida, then play six straight on the road. Six of those first seven games are divisional contests. After that, they'll come home for a little over a week to play three games, then depart for another long road trip. They'll face the Rangers, Devils, and Islanders before flying to Stockholm. They'll spend a week in Sweden, culminating with two games against Buffalo. By the time they return to Tampa, they will have played 15 games, only four of which will take place at Amalie Arena (one of the Global Series contests counts as a "home" game, so officially they'll have played five home and ten road games).

Video: FLA@TBL: Cirelli puts home SHG to tie the game

That's a demanding start to the season. Of course, there are advantages to playing so many road games early on. It creates opportunities for team bonding - remember that the Lightning's roster turned over about 25 percent from the end of last year. It also means that once they get through those first 15, they'll have a favorable schedule moving forward. In fact, the Bolts will play only six road games between their return from Stockholm in mid-November through December 30. And the players will benefit from the experience of traveling overseas together and participating in the Global Series.

Every team has stretches throughout the season when the schedule becomes more challenging. For the Lightning, one of those happens to take place right at the beginning. Let's see if they can navigate their way through it successfully. If so, they'll have set themselves up well, just as they have done during the past two seasons.

Will We See More Of A Defensive Focus?
This topic was brought up during that first day of training camp, when players and management spoke about tightening up defensively and taking fewer minor penalties.

Let's clarify a few items. Last year, the Lightning finished tied for seventh in goals allowed per game, a very respectable number. They also posted the best penalty kill percentage in the league, tied with Columbus and Arizona with an 85% kill rate. In their series loss to the Blue Jackets, however, the Lightning averaged 4.75 goals allowed per game and killed only five of 10 penalties.

So poor team defense and penalty killing contributed to the series loss against Columbus. But as the players said during media day, their defensive play during the regular season could have been better. That despite the strong numbers, they had relied too heavily on Andrei Vasilevskiy's goaltending to cover up miscues. And while they did lead the league in penalty killing percentage, they also ranked third in most times shorthanded.

Video: Media Day | Hedman

Are these areas fixable? The Lightning are built to be speedy and skilled. But being talented offensively and strong defensively are not mutually exclusive. A team can be both. As Stamkos stated on that first day of camp, the Lightning can succeed defensively with "smarter decision-making" and "being more responsible". He added: "You can tone down in some areas and improve in others and still be successful."

The same is true with penalties. While some penalties are necessary (denying a scoring chance) or unlucky (puck over the glass), teams can reduce the quantity of kills by limiting the stick/obstruction infractions.

We don't yet have the answers to these questions. On question two, the record after 15 games will be cut and dried. It may be more of an eye-test for questions one and three (although we can track the number of penalties leading to opposition power plays). Ultimately, if the Lightning can answer "yes" to all three questions, they'll put themselves in an excellent position to have a successful 2019-20 campaign.

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