Sizing up the Lightning at the midway point

The Lightning was confident Andrei Vasilevskiy would blossom into an elite No. 1. How many thought it'd come this quickly? [DIRK SHADD | Times]
The Lightning was confident Andrei Vasilevskiy would blossom into an elite No. 1. How many thought it'd come this quickly? [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published January 8
Updated January 8

TAMPA -— As Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill was conducting his post-game press conference Sunday, his good buddy knocked on the glass window of the room.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper smiled, and waved goodbye on his way out of town after another Tampa Bay victory.

"You can do that when you’re in first place," Blashill said.

The Lightning (30-9-3) has left the rest of the Atlantic Division in its wake, reaching the season’s midpoint with a 10-point lead over second-place Boston. Tampa Bay also has an eight-point cushion over Washington for the top team in the Eastern Conference.

"They’re running away with it," Ottawa forward Bobby Ryan said.

There are a lot of things the Lightning can feel good about in its franchise-best start. There’s the spectacular play of No.1 goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is a Vezina Trophy favorite and a Hart Trophy candidate for league MVP. Nikita Kucherov is tied for the league’ lead in goals with 27, Steven Stamkos has enjoyed a brilliant bounce-back season, earning an All-Star captain spot. The Lightning is No. 1 in goals per game, and No. 2 in goals allowed.

But let’s not plan the Stanley Cup parade in Channelside yet. Tampa Bay knows there’s a lot more work to do, and some needed improvement.

"We can sit here and say, ‘Yeah, if the playoff started today, we’re in,’ " Cooper said. "But you’ve got to be battle-ready when that comes. And I’m not so sure we’re there right yet."

What’s gone right?

The real No. 1: The Lightning was confident Vasilevskiy would blossom into an elite No. 1. How many thought it’d come this quickly? Vasilevskiy leads the league in wins, goals against average, save percentage and shutouts, showing the poise of a 10-year vet. Vasilevskiy’s been Tampa Bay’s best player, its MVP. As Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty put it, "God, he’s good."

Stamkos’ start: Everyone, including Stamkos, wondered when he’d be "back," after missing most of last season after knee surgery. That Stamkos has flourished, with 51 points, is a credit to him and his chemistry with Kucherov, who might be one of the top three players in the world. Stamkos’ presence in the room can’t be understated, and he’s been a difference-maker on the third-ranked power play (12 of his 17 goals are with the man advantage).

On Point: The emergence of Brayden Point last season likely made it easier for the Lightning to part ways with talented wing Jonathan Drouin over the summer. Point is capable of scoring 25-30 goals, and he’s on his way with 16 (32 points) in 42 games. More importantly, Point’s led the team’s shutdown line, charged with defending the other team’s top players. That could loom large come playoff time. Point is a budding star, and the rest of the league is starting to figure it out.

Bolstered blueline: The addition of Mikhail Sergachev has added another dimension to the Lightning blueline, a second wave of offense behind Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman. With Sergachev slotted in the top-four, alongside steady veteran Anton Stralman, Tampa Bay has seen a big boost in production, becoming the first team to rack up 100 points from defensemen. Veteran Dan Girardi’s signing might not have been widely praised in the summer, but he’s been a perfect fit in the right role, on the third pair and penalty kill. The good news for the Lightning is that all tests were negative on Girardi, who got hit in the back of the neck by a slap shot Sunday.

What’s missing?

Dominated in dot: The Lightning is one of the worst teams in the league in faceoffs, ranking 30th at 46.9 percent, only better than Colorado. It’s surprising considering Tampa Bay has so many centers, two centers on each of the first two lines. This issue might not be killing the Lightning overall, as it’s still a strong possession team (taking 62.5 percent of shots in 5-on-5). But come playoff time, those draws, especially on special teams, are huge. The Lightning ranks last in faceoffs while shorthanded (39.6 percent), per faceoffs.net.

Penalty kill: Leafs coach Mike Babcock is a big believer in that you don’t have to have an elite power play to win, but you need a good penalty kill. While Tampa Bay has been better lately, including killing off two 5-on-3s in Sunday’s win in Detroit, it is still a pedestrian 80.7 percent (18th in the NHL). Losing Ryan Callahan to injury hurt, the Lightning giving up 10 power play goals in his eight-game absence. But this unit can be better, from faceoffs (39.6 percent) to structure.

Coverage: While the Lightning is No. 2 in goals allowed, a lot of that has to do with the play of Vasilevskiy. Turnovers have been a key culprit, but so has coverage in the defensive zone, especially when there are scrambles. You can see Cooper trying to shake things up recently, making Braydon Coburn a healthy scratch Saturday and Jake Dotchin Sunday. You’ve also got to be wary of Sergachev potentially hitting a rookie wall, a minus-four in his last three games.

Biggest deadline needs

Right-shot defenseman: These are very difficult to acquire, but if the Lightning can find an upgrade on its blueline, specifically the right side, that’s something to watch for. Senators’ Cody Ceci could be available. The Lightning and Blue Jackets have scouted each other often the first half of the year, with Columbus having depth on ‘D’ and a need up front.

Depth forward: Preferably one who can win faceoffs.

Biggest threat

Bruins: Other than Vegas, Boston is the best team the Lightning has played. The Bruins trail the Lightning by 10 points, but have two games in hand. Tampa Bay lost 3-2 in Boston in mid-November, and has three more meetings with the Bruins, all in the final month of the season.

Complacency: With a big lead, the Lightning can’t look too far ahead. Cooper referred to some "entitlement" after Saturday’s game. He got an "outstanding" response in Sunday’s win.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]_JSmith.

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