Troubling Yet Necessary October for Lightning

The 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning regular season was a work of dominant art. The Bolts tied the 1996 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in an NHL season with 62. Nikita Kucherov won the Hart Trophy while tying the record for most points by a Russian-born player. Andrei Vasilevskiy claimed the Vezina Trophy as the League’s best goaltender. Jon Cooper and Victor Hedman were finalists for the Jack Adams Award and Norris Trophy respectively. Anthony Cirelli was voted to the NHL’s All-Rookie Team. It was a thorough and impressive demolition of the regular season.

Almost as impressive and certainly more significant was the postseason sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Tampa did not lead after surrendering a 3-0 first period lead and became the first President’s Trophy winner to not win a single postseason game.

New Year New Problems

The aftermath did not change the bedrock of the team. Cooper is still the Head Coach. Steven Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Cirelli, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat are all still around. The Lightning even managed to add some important pieces in Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrick Maroon, partly thanks to the lack of a state income tax in Florida.

Still, the opening month of the 2019-2020 season doesn’t show an overwhelming juggernaut, but a talented team finding their way through some troubling play. For some games, their skill has shown through. The Bolts mopped Toronto and earned tight wins against Montreal, Boston, and Pittsburgh, all of whom will be playoff contenders this season. There were plenty of troubling losses though. Non-playoff teams from last season like Ottawa and the Rangers scored Lightning defeats and Colorado embarrassed the Bolts at Amalie Arena. The result was a 6-4-2 record; a far cry from last season’s 10-2-1 in October and 6th in the Atlantic Division.

“Last year we sometimes didn’t play that good but we would win easily,” observed Ondrej Palat. “This year’s a different season.”

The loss to Columbus had a significant effect on the Bolts. New arrival Shattenkirk explained the team’s position: “It’s a different season I think for a lot of these guys than last year. It’s obviously a new season for me. It’s a different situation. We’re not going to be the team we were last year. The sooner we can come to grips with that, we’ll get past living on what happened last year, thinking things will go our way.”

As far as the actual play is concerned, Tampa’s gone one consistent problem: Penalties. Tampa is 9th in the NHL in Penalties In Minutes overall (123) and 7th in PIM per game (10.25). They’ve also tied for the League high in major penalties taken with five. Compounding the penalty problems is the NHL’s 3rd worst penalty kill (71.5%) with 13 power-play goals allowed in 12 games.

The problems can’t really be blamed on poor goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s save percentage is down compared to last season, but only to .910 compared to his career .919. While he is ranked 30th in that stat among all NHL goalies, he’s had to hero Tampa to wins early in this season. In eight starts, Vasilevskiy has recorded 34 saves or more five times and is 4-1 in those games, only dropping the Ranger game in which he recorded 41 saves. Curtis McElhinney hasn’t been stellar in the back-up role, but he’s handled himself well. The 36 year old Colorado College alumnus has stopped 30 or more shots in all four of his games, three of which were on the road and the only home game was against Nashville. He stole overtime points against Carolina and the Predators and despite giving up six goals to New Jersey, was among the biggest difference makers in a needed Tampa OT win.

Stephen Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are carrying their weight at the scoring point as usual. The offense is still Top-10 in the NHL and the depth pieces in Palat, Johnson, Cirelli, and others have pitched in strong performances. Injuries have played a factor. Brayden Point missed the first few games of the season. Cedric Paquette missed eight games to start the year. Victor Hedman and Patrick Maroon left the Ranger game at MSG after injuries.

Mostly, though, Tampa hasn’t had bounces work in their favor, taken too many penalties and hasn’t helped their goaltending.

Fortunately, October is over, and the worst part of the schedule too. Tampa will benefit from a kinder November schedule. Eight of their twelve games in October were on the road and the Bolts twice played three games in four nights. Amalie Arena will be used for eight games in the new month.

The confidence of the squad has been built through the struggles. “We have a lot of faith in the group, in this team,” said Tyler Johnson after their October 30th victory over the New Jersey Devils. “We have a lot of skill. We know we can win games… It’s still very early in the season. We just gotta keep on using the formula we think is gonna work and keep on.”

Before their New York road trip is over, though, the Bolts have one more test at the Nassau Collesium. Lightning got Halloween off and face the 8-3-0 New York Islanders in one of their biggest early-season challenges on Friday night.

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Chris is a proud Boston University Terrier ('16). While at BU, he studied political science, hosted a radio show, and covered the school's basketball team. Since graduation, he's attended the Connecticut School of Broadcasting, covered College Hockey's biggest events, and joined the Sports Talk Florida crew to cover notable northeastern sports happenings. You can find his fedora on press row at various hockey rinks or wandering PGA Courses