The Lightning have won 5 of 6, but something isn’t right
The good news: After hitting the toughest stretch of their season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have found their winning ways again on a long road trip. They’ve won five of their last six games, scoring four or more goals four times in that span.
The bad news: Tampa Bay has been outshot in its last eight games, that having been quite a feat before this stretch. They continue to let other teams dictate the pace of games, especially in the third period. As a result, they’ve put a lot of work in the inbox of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, he of one of the largest workloads in the NHL when it comes to games played.
Yes, the Lightning are back at their healthy wins pace, retaining the best record in hockey once again, but with their long road trip coming to a close on Monday night the team is still fighting a midseason lull that has taught us a lot, both good and bad, about Tampa Bay’s hockey team.
On Saturday night against the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks, Tampa Bay did control the action for the first two periods. Coming into the third, they had a commanding lead in goals and a healthy lead in shots taken. They played Jon Cooper’s hockey, complete with the frantic pace and the quick shot-taking.
It was the third period where frayed edges began to show themselves. Vancouver managed 17 shots on Vasilevskiy in the final period to Tampa Bay’s 9. A period that started out 3-0 Lightning quickly became 3-2 before a Cory Conacher penalty shot put it away. The Bolts were on their heels throughout that third period, letting All Star MVP Brock Boeser continue his stellar rookie season with a goal and an assist.
In the end, Vasilevskiy had to make 33 saves to preserve the victory. It’s a luxury to have one of the better goals in hockey, and Vasilevskiy’s development is likely the best surprise thus far in the Lightning’s season, but hockey season is long, and with Peter Budaj out the Bolts are presenting their young netminder with an intense workload. Vasilevskiy is fifth in the NHL in starts by a goalie, fourth in minutes in net. Most of the others near him in the category are seasoned veterans, but at 23 the Lightning goaltender is among the youngest starters in the league.
Tampa Bay simply cannot afford to make their goaltender bail them out this often when they’re going to need him in April and May.
This started with an injury to Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay played six games without Hedman before the defenseman came back against Winnipeg earlier this week, and in every game of this road trip they have been outshot. That comes after outshooting their opponents in ten of the thirteen games leading up to the defenseman’s injury.
Perhaps as Hedman finds his stride now that he’s back, that will go a long way. Hedman was unquestionably the leader of Tampa Bay’s blue liners, and the defense looked a bit out of sorts without him. As Hedman returns to form, a lot of this trouble will go away by itself.
Still, if Hedman’s injury were the sole cause, the Lightning wouldn’t have been outshot 17-9 in the third period on Saturday night. More than one absence has contributed to these troubles.
The good news is that no team wants to look perfect in the regular season. This is the exact time of year when a hockey team can identify their shortcomings, work on them, and be prepared for the playoffs when other good teams will undoubtedly come ready to exploit those.
While the season has been almost exclusively good news for Lightning fans, the last few weeks have shown some cracks that the Bolts will have to patch over come playoff time. With the trade deadline and two months of regular season to go, they have plenty of time.