We have a hard time adapting our view of the world as things we thought we knew change.
You probably had a friend who was short all through high school and suddenly and quickly grew up as a teenager, and now it’s kind of weird to accept that he’s actually your tall friend. I talk about this because it’s hard to think of Tampa Bay Lightning as a team that might struggle offensively at times, but that’s their current reality.
Years ago, when the Bolts were just the best regular season hockey team, sir, could they score. They were fast and on-the-go on their way to an NHL record of 126 points and… a first-round exit against Columbus. Bolts developed and matured and eventually found success after the season.
Some of their new defensive focus is slower than their offensive results, but it always felt like goals were in their bag if they ever needed to take them out to score at a big moment. What’s more dangerous than a team that has offensive firepower when they need it, but chooses to play smart throughout the game and only unlocks it when they have to? still Poetry Like an offensive superpower when the numbers don’t prove it.
Tampa problem now? Their defensive results have been great overall, and the goalkeepers are elite, but I’m not 100% convinced that they are still sitting on the same extra equipment.
It’s not that they haven’t scored any goals, and of course they’ve scored enough to go deep in another year. Their 3.07 goals per match were impressive, but it was only the eighth among the playoff teams, and the last of the remaining goals. If you pay attention, everyone is scoring goals these days, so bypassing the old standards is not good if you are losing ground to the teams you play. In Game 3 Tampa scored three times, but two of them were in a game of strength – which is great too – but a tough plan to rely on when you can’t swap strength for a bobbing opposition for one of the best powers. He plays in post-season history (of the teams with at least 40 strengths, 31.4 percent of Rangers are one of the all-time best).
I mention it’s hard to change our perception of something off the top because we’re really looking at lightning when it comes to scoring 5 on 5 during a run. For the past two years, they haven’t been among the best in the league in scoring. Look at their league rank:
(Keep in mind that goals everywhere have been steadily improving during this time.)
Of course, ninth in 5v5 isn’t bad by any means – it’s a lot better than the Rangers, who were third in the league – only things have shifted from the reality of their regular season totals.
First, Rangers are much better in this regard after the trade deadline.
On the other hand, Lightning dropped to 1.5 goals per game at 5-on-5 in the playoffs, a pretty big drop and a clear red flag.
Brayden Point’s loss was exhausting for their group. When they won the Stanley Cup in 2019-20, Point led Tampa’s attack with 33 points in 23 games, but most importantly put a colossal 26 points of strength in those games. The following year, his points total wasn’t flashy, but he was still 3rd in the team even in strengths – in short, they counted on this guy.
It’s not just about raw totals, because it’s the kind of player that represents what bolts have become. He prioritizes playing the right way and work ethic, and when they need big play – say, in Game 6 of Round 1 with his team one shot against elimination in overtime – the point is the guy who finds a way for them.
During the regular season, Team Lightning got their usual elite offering from regular players. In 5-on-5, Stephen Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov were top tiers, each scoring about 0.85 points per game with equal power. The next level scorers for Tampa were Alex Killorn, Ondrej Balat, and, of course, Point. From this post-season level, they have good play from Palat (with a big goal in Game 3, nine equal strengths in 14 games), zero goals and two strength points from Killorn (a big problem), and the point is out. Their Depth Points seem to have dried up with no obvious way to revive them (although turning Stamkos into center seemed like a leap so far).
If you get past the Bolts’ front lines, you’ll realize there aren’t a lot of places crime can come from. They were only wearing 11 up front before Match 3, the bottom group includes players who aren’t supposed to score (Pat Marron and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare), Brandon Hagel has scored once in all playoffs, Anthony Cirelli is the same, and so I ran. Names “where the next target will come from” is a little faster than you think now. I’m sure Julien BriseBois thanks his lucky superstars to Nick Paul, who has just seven points (six points in 5-v5) in 14 games, given that a little extra came at critical times.
The good news for the Bolts is that their attack deserved more than what he’s been given lately. In the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bolts didn’t get much at all, averaging 1.85 expected goals per game. Against Florida, they performed slightly better, reaching 2.07 xGF per match, but were victorious on the backs of defense and goalkeepers. Against Rangers, they produced the most impressive 3.02 xGF in every game, but now… they face Igor Shesterkin, a potential Vezina Cup winner. Tampa will need to score at least three predicted goals with equal power per game to beat them as many times as they beat Sergey Bobrovsky or Jack Campbell.
Stamkos scores two goals, but his 5-on-5 generation is down from the regular season, and there’s more to Kucherov, too, whose performance was a roller coaster ride from Games 1 to 3.
In the end, all the things that get you through tough qualifying moments will be there for Lightning. They’ve mastered the right mix of patience, risk-taking, commitment, energy, and all the other intangibles they seem to have in spades. In both rounds one and two, they showed one game of offensive dash (Game 4 in Round 1, Game 3 in Round 2), a solar flare from a collective star that has always been shining in years past. I think we’ll see at least one more of those.
But as the number of goals per game rises in the post-season period, the pressure on them to score will be as much as their opponent scores over and over again, and the opposing goalkeeper is just as good. They are, too, of course. But in years past, I felt that Vasilevskiy’s presence was more than enough to ensure their way to beat certain opponents.
Now, faced with a man who appears to be on par with Vasilevskiy in the other wrinkle, the weight of the pressure now turns to scoring, as they try to find the extra gear they had before.