Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning.
1. Can the Lightning finally avoid the late-season fall-off that has been plaguing them?
There’s an old hockey commercial where Sidney Crosby jumps out of a picture where the Penguins had just lost the Stanley Cup to the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. Dejected, Crosby says, “I never want to be in this picture again,” and then jumps back into the shot.
While there isn’t a specific moment for Tampa Bay, but there’s certainly a big picture to gaze at. The Lightning need to have the same mindset as Sid did. They’ve been to the Cup Final once and the Eastern Conference Final three times in the past four seasons. They’ve held 3-2 series leads in two of the three conference finals and still have nothing to show for it. They’ve failed to score in Game 7s. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have turned into ghosts when need the most. Secondary scoring dried up. And their defense has failed at the wrong moment.
These seem like small revisions given how talented the team is, but nonetheless, they’re questions that need answers.
2. Can the Lightning find a way to improve their penalty kill?
They are a team with few glaring faults, but if one needs to be pipped for improvement, it’s the team’s penalty kill.
Sure, scoring a lot of goals can cover a multitude of sins, but in a critical Game 6 against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final, it was a power-play goal by T.J. Oshie that proved to be the first and final dagger as the Caps sent it to Game 7 in a shutout win.
Tampa’s penalty kill ranked 28th in the regular season at 76.1 percent and fell to 75 percent in the playoffs. In layman’s terms, if you could goad the Lightning to take four penalties a game, you were almost assured of scoring once. When games are as close as playoff contests can be, every advantage (and disadvantage in Tampa’s case) counts.
They have a solid defensive core, and having Ryan McDonagh for a full season should help improve their PK numbers.
Perhaps staying out of the box a little more could do wonders as well. The Lightning took the third most minor penalties last season and were the 10th highest team in terms of times shorthanded.
3. Will Andrei Vasilevskiy come into this season with more stamina?
The words you never want to hear from your starting goalie around March when you’re a lock for the playoffs is, “I’m tired.”
Vasilevskiy did utter those words last season.
“Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before,” Vasilevskiy told the Tampa Bay Times. “I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can play 60-plus.’ But now when I’m on 50-plus, I’m like, ‘That’s tough.’
That fatigue ultimately cost him the Vezina.
His play down the stretch of the regular season dipped and he was rested. The rest did him good, as he was solid in the postseason, but the Lightning need him to be relatively fresh for the 60 or so starts he will make, or at least build in a bit more rest throughout the season.
On the other hand, Vasilevskiy was going through the throes of being a No. 1 for the first time in the NHL and still managed a .931 save percentage in five-on-five situations over the course of the season.
Endurance can be taught and managed. It’s scary to think what Vasilevskiy can do if there’s no fall off physically and mentally.