Pucks In Deep: Hard to Catch Lightning

by Sam Stockton | 4/15/19 2:05am

Pucks in Deep: Hard to Catch Lightning

In a late regular season rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, the Tampa Bay Lightning hosted the Washington Capitals on March 20. Tied 3-3 late in the second period, Tampa went to a man-advantage. On the power play, Lightning forward Steven Stamkos got his stick in the way of Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen’s clearing attempt, directing a one-touch pass to center Brayden Point along the halfwall. Point zipped a pass to left wing Ondrej Palat as he drove the net, giving Palat an unobstructed path to goaltender Braden Holtby. Yet, rather than take a shot, Palat dropped a no-look pass to Stamkos. Like Palat, Stamkos declined what appeared to be a prime scoring opportunity, opting to send a pass to Nikita Kucherov, just above the goal line along the wall. Kucherov, the National Hockey League’s leading scorer whose 128 points marked the highest total the league has seen since 1996, dropped to a knee and defied the seemingly impossible angle to fire a shot into the gaping net. With each pass, another Washington penalty killer scrambled only to find that the puck had already been passed. By the time the puck found the back of the net, Holtby lay sprawled across the crease with no chance whatsoever to make a play on Kucherov’s shot. 

While this string of passes certainly deserves individual commendation, it truly epitomizes the style of play that Tampa rode to an NHL record 62-win regular season. Even at five-on-five, Tampa’s play in the offensive zone is devastatingly effective, as players are constantly circling and looking for the open man. If you are prone to dizziness, I wouldn’t recommend watching their puck movement with the extra man — and when Tampa has a power play, it’s not even a competition.

On the heels of their record-setting regular season, the Lightning now appear to be one of the best teams of the salary cap era.

They have the league’s top-rated power play and penalty kill, and utilized their special teams dominance to exploit the tendencies of NHL officiating. NHL referees generally shy away from blowing their whistles in an attempt to keep the number of power plays for each team roughly approximate, especially during the playoffs. Tampa takes advantage of this with their aggressive style, taking penalties while also receiving power plays, turning the game into a special teams competition in which they know they have a distinct advantage.

Their netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy posted a dominant .925 save percentage, but a glance at their backup Louis Domingue’s numbers offers a better insight into just how good the 2018-19 season was in Tampa. Domingue registered a rather pedestrian .908 save percentage, and yet, he still won 21 of his 26 games played.

That figure is a testament to the dominance of the Lightning’s group of skaters. Kucherov leads the Lightning attack, and is one of the league’s best snipers and playmakers. However, the Lightning did not rack up a league-leading 3.89 goals-per-game soley behind Kucherov’s strong play. The Lightning have steadily assembled a deep roster of elite players; in fact, the roster is so impressive, it’s drawn outrage from other fan bases who claim the Lightning have an unfair salary cap advantage because of Florida’s lack of state income tax.

No, the Lightning did not build the deepest roster in the league off a tax loophole. It does help players see a bit more of the dollar figure when they actually sign a new deal, but the Lightning are not alone in this regard. Several other NHL teams play in states with no income tax, and players pay taxes in the states they play in. Lightning players don’t get off scot-free.

In fact, Tampa’s success stems from their talent identification, reflecting a keen attunement to the game’s direction. While other teams squandered high picks on players based on their size, the Lightning recognized that the combination of speed and skill would best guide them to the top of the NHL table. Take Point as an example. Many NHL scouts focused on Point’s weight, just 166 pounds, rather than his excellent production in junior hockey for the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors, and he fell all the way to the late third round.

Beyond talent evaluation, Tampa has successfully created a winning culture, as players are willing to accept below-market deals in favor of building a better roster. Point’s restricted free agency this summer will act as a test to this culture. Stamkos set a precedent by inking his deal at a below-market rate, and Tampa’s other stars followed suit. So far, Tampa’s front office has successfully signed Stamkos, Kucherov, Vasilevsky and reigning Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Victor Hedman to long-term deals significantly slighter than the ones they would have been offered on the open market. 

If this were the English Premier League, we would already be talking about the Lightning as one of the great teams in the history of the sport. Instead, the Lightning’s season will be evaluated not based on the 82-game sample size that is the regular season, but instead on the two-month, loosely regulated chaos that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.

To deem the Lightning’s season a success or failure based on whether they capture the Cup for the second time in franchise history is not entirely unfair. After all, it is almost certain that the Lightning will do so.

However, as we settle in to enjoy the year’s most frantically entertaining hockey, let’s not forget just how impressive Tampa’s regular season campaign was. More so than any other American sport, NHL games are decided by razor thin margins — shots that nick the inside of the post and go in, goaltenders who stand on their heads during an opposing onslaught, the bizarre bounces of a rubber baseball with the top and bottom sawed off. To see the league’s top team felled by a cellar dweller is not entirely out of the ordinary. Amidst this chaos, the Lightning were the league’s most dominant team from start to finish, leading the league with a +98 goal differential. The second best mark in the league? Calgary, all the way back at +66.

It took just two games of postseason play for their regular season domination to give way to playoff desperation. The Lightning jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead in game one of their series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it looked as though the Bolts would face little resistance taking down the East’s wild card. Then, the Jackets stormed back for a 4-3 win and dominated two nights later for a 5-1 win to take a 2-0 series lead. To make matters worse, Kucherov threw a reckless hit that earned him a meeting with NHL player safety and a one-game suspension. This is not to say that the Lightning are doomed. The Caps trailed the Jackets 0-2 going back to Columbus in last year’s first round series and rallied to win four straight and eventually the Cup. But both games were extremely close, and the Caps roster was also at full strength as they made their run.

This is the way of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Wherever there appears certainty, it is an illusion. To see the Lightning look mortal, — let alone in dire straights just two games into their quest to re-take the Cup — is astonishing, especially given their dominant regular season. Whether they rally from this deficit or flame out in spectacular fashion, it’s crucial to recognize how special this Tampa season has been. Remember that when they inevitably shred some poor penalty kill with crisp, one-touch, tape-to-tape passes. Remember that when their year ends in a handshake line — whether as the victors or the vanquished.