Lightning have returned to being one of NHL’s most dominant teams

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For the first month-and-a-half of the 2019-20 NHL season something seemed to be off with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They were a .500 team, they weren’t scoring goals the way they did a year ago, and they just looked … stale. Did the Columbus Blue Jackets break them in the playoffs? Did they finally tune out coach Jon Cooper, and would his job be in jeopardy? All things that seemed to be legitimate discussions around, say, the end of November.

Not so much today.

When the Lightning open the second half of the season on Monday night against the Dallas Stars, they will be doing so with one of the league’s best overall records and finally starting to -resemble the team that won 62 regular season games a year ago.

Just take a look at what they have done since the start of Dec. 1 and where their performance ranks among the rest of the league.

  • Record: 17-6-1, .729 points percentage (2nd in NHL)
  • 5-on-5 goal differential: plus-23 (1st in NHL)
  • Total goal differential: plus-28 (1st in NHL)
  • Goals per game: 3.55 (3rd in NHL)
  • Goals against per game: 2.39 (2nd in NHL)
  • Power play percentage: 24.3 (7th in NHL)
  • Penalty kill percentage: 88.9 (1st in NHL)
  • Shot attempt share (5-on-5): 55.9 percent (1st in NHL)
  • Scoring chance share (5-on-5): 60.6 percent (1st in NHL)
  • High-danger scoring chance share (5-on-5): 57.6 percent (1st in NHL)
  • Expected goals share (5-on-5): 58.2 percent (1st in NHL)

Completely dominant across the board.

The only team with a better points percentage during that stretch is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they are not only first in several of those categories at 5-on-5, they are in first by a significant margin. Taking their scoring chance share of 60.6 percent, for example. The next closest team has a share of just 57.2 percent, while only three teams (Tampa Bay, Vegas, and Colorado) have a mark higher than 54 percent.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise

On paper this is still one of the best and deepest rosters in the league, and the “struggles” early in the year really come down to nothing more than a slow October to start the season. It’s not uncommon for a team to have a slow month over a 82-game season, but when that month just so happens to be the very first one it’s going to get a lot of attention. Especially when it is a Stanley Cup contender and reigning Presidents’ Trophy winning team.

Overall, the Lightning are doing everything you want to see from a championship caliber roster.

They can outscore almost anyone, they have outstanding special teams, and they are outshooting and outchancing teams at the type elite level that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams. They can do it all.

The other big factor is they have also had some of their best players start to really pick up their production, with none being more important than the recent improvement of starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. It wasn’t that he had a bad start to the season, but it wasn’t matching the bar he set for himself the past couple of years. But over his past 16 starts he has a 14-1-1 record with a .934 save percentage. The only goalies (minimum 10 appearances) with a better save percentage during that stretch is the Columbus duo of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo.

When you combine that level of goaltending with the team-wide dominance shown above, that is a potential monster of a team.

Only one more thing to prove

For as good as this Lightning team is — and has been — there is always going to be that “yeah, but…” following them around.

That, of course, is winning the Stanley Cup.

Until they do that there is always going to be a segment of the hockey world that looks to downplay regular season success like this as almost meaningless. It is the same type of thing the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues dealt with until they won it all over the past two years, and it is sort of what the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently dealing with.

But it is not like this Lightning team hasn’t had success in the postseason.

All anybody remembers at this point is the way they went out in Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, getting swept in four straight games to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Yes, it was a shocking upset. One of the biggest in modern Stanley Cup playoff history, and it was worthy of every bit of criticism sent in the Lightning’s direction.

It was also the outlier for them.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season their 283 regular season wins are the second-most in the NHL, just three behind the Capitals’ 286 as of Monday.

Even with last year’s Round 1 sweep, the Lightning’s 36 playoff wins over that same stretch are second most in the league, behind only Pittsburgh and Washington (both tied for first at 39).

It’s not like they have been a team that’s lost in the first round every year, or failed to actually go on a deep run. They made a Stanley Cup Final. They lost a pair of Game 7s in the Eastern Conference Final to teams that went on to win the Stanley Cup. You can criticize the way they lost those series (losing a 2-1 series lead in the SCF; losing 3-2 series leads in both Conference Finals). At that point you’re talking razor thin margins between winning and losing. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way.

The only thing you can do is keep stockpiling good players, playing to their strengths, and hope some luck finally goes your way.

Two years ago it finally went the Capitals’ way.

Last year it worked for the Blues.

Maybe this is the year for the Lightning.

MORE: NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contenders entering second half

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.