Lightning get a chance to shake off lull vs. Blue Jackets

Lightning get a chance to shake off lull vs. Blue Jackets
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning. Blue Jackets-Lightning coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

No, the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t need to panic about their recent relative struggles as they continue down the stretch with Sunday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

If it wasn’t already front of mind, unveiling their 2020 Stanley Cup rings serves as a reminder that the Lightning remain a clear contender. They’ve also suffered great heartache despite entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after one of the hottest regular seasons ever. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, right?

Combine those thoughts with Nikita Kucherov becoming available during the postseason, and Steven Stamkos possibly being back by then as well, and cooler heads should prevail.

That said … the Lightning are also clearly in “Stanley Cup or bust” mode. After paying big to buttress their depth with Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow during their last run, the Bolts once again paid a ransom to land David Savard.

While the Lightning wiggle under the salary cap year after year, you never know when they might finally get stuck. Especially as their core gradually gets a little older.

[BLUE JACKETS-LIGHTNING COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So, no, it’s not time to panic. But the Lightning should at least consider themselves on alert after stumbling lately — at least by their lofty standards. Let’s look into some of those details.

Lightning have struggled lately, even if their record isn’t too alarming

If you look at wins and losses alone, the Lightning’s recent struggles would probably earn a shoulder shrug — even with losses to teams like the Red Wings and Blue Jackets.

On March 23, the Lightning presented a sparkling 24-6-2 record. They basically went .500 since then, slipping to 31-14-2. While losing to the Hurricanes and Stars is one thing, it’s a little unsettling to struggle against lower-rung squads. And, even with the Predators on a roll, Jon Cooper understandably called a recent 7-2 loss an “absolute embarrassment.”

While it’s foolish to get too worked up by a short-staffed Lightning team with little more than seeding on the line, this lull could be costly. By stumbling lately, the Lightning look that much less likely to finish atop the Central Division. That’s not the end of the world, but the road to a Stanley Cup repeat would be a lot bumpier if it went through both of the Hurricanes and Panthers.

Moving beyond tougher playoff matchups, let’s consider a few concerns for the Lightning.

A down month for Victor Hedman

If there’s one situation to monitor most of all, it might be Victor Hedman’s relative struggles.

Looking at point totals alone, you’d think Hedman has been his Norris-grade self, as the big defenseman’s produced 42 points in 47 games. When you dig into certain deeper numbers, it’s clearer that Hedman’s play has sagged.

Since the Lightning faced the Blue Jackets on March 30, Hedman was on the ice for eight goals for versus 18 goals against at even-strength. As you can see at Natural Stat Trick, Hedman’s possession stats haven’t been overly positive either.

You don’t see Hedman make many mistakes like getting burned on this Viktor Arvidsson goal:

Much like the Lightning’s larger issues, it’s not wise to get too worked up about Hedman’s ups and downs. But it might be another push to revisit the issue of rest vs. rust.

Hedman is 30 and has accrued a lot of mileage as a workhorse defenseman. That goes for his career, but also over the last year-and-change. If there’s some fatigue here, it might be worth it to give Hedman some nights off. Especially if it becomes clear that, instead of fighting for the Central Division title, the Lightning might end up merely jostling for the second or third seed.

Either way, the Lightning have to hope that Hedman looks more like the Norris and Conn Smythe winner we’re used to seeing.

Leaning too much on Vasilevskiy?

While Hedman might receive extra benefit of the doubt from award voters, Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s outstanding season may actually not be receiving enough attention.

Considering Vasilevskiy’s achievements (including one Vezina Trophy already), it’s bewildering to say this but … the 2020-21 season might be his masterpiece. His 27-8-1 record and .930 save percentage is already impressive enough, but people likely assume that he’s propped up a bit by Tampa Bay.

Instead, they’re leaning quite a bit on their star goalie. Via Hockey Reference, Vasilevskiy easily leads all goalies in Goals Saved Against Average with 22.86. (No other goalie’s even reached 16 yet.)

Beyond being the Vezina frontrunner, it’s more than fair to argue that Vasilevskiy deserves more Hart Trophy consideration.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are justified in fearing a situation that might put Vasilevskiy’s brilliance under the spotlight: losing him for any extended period of time. Simply put, the gulf between Vasilevskiy and other Lightning goalie options appears massive.

(This is a good time to note that goalies are mysterious creatures, but still …)

Curtis McElhinney, for example, ranks among the NHL’s worst goalies in Goals Saved Against Average at -9.09 (and an abysmal .872 save percentage).

Considering all of that, the Lightning might want to bubble wrap Vasilevskiy. Again, if it becomes clear that the Hurricanes or Panthers will finish ahead of Tampa Bay, then they’d be wise to value some energy management.

Again, this is more about monitoring than panicking

To be clear: the Lightning don’t need to sound alarm bells here. Most obviously, they’ll be a very different team with a healthy Steven Stamkos, and especially Nikita Kucherov.

It’s also perfectly reasonable if battle-hardened players like Victor Hedman might find it harder to ratchet up their intensity this time of year.

From here, though, there are some situations for Jon Cooper & Co. to keep an eye on. Facing those pesky Blue Jackets on Sunday gives the Lightning a chance to get sharp for the playoffs.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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