TAMPA — No one questioned the Lightning’s chances of winning a second straight Stanley Cup when the NHL announced its realigned divisions for the 2021 season. Most prognosticators picked Tampa Bay to win the Central.
Through the first two weeks of the season, however, the division appears to be more competitive than many first thought.
It’s a small sample size, and half the division’s eight teams — including the Lightning — have had games postponed due to the coronavirus. But the division is shaping up to be one dictated by defense, resulting in plenty of one-goal games and games going beyond regulation.
“There’s a lot of defense in our division,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Two of the Lightning’s past three games have gone to an extra period, and Tampa Bay’s 1-0 overtime loss Thursday at Carolina was the sixth straight game in the division that went beyond regulation, meaning every team is getting at least a point in those games.
That’s cluttering the standings in the early going. The first- and last-place teams were separated by only four points entering Friday. With teams playing only inside their division this season, games, and points, mean a lot more.
“We were talking about that (Wednesday) night, all these three-point games,” Cooper said, referring to the games going beyond regulation. “You’ve just got to get points, got to bunch them. And we’ve done that for the five games we’ve played. Naturally, you want to win them all, but if you can keep accumulating points, you just hope some of these other games don’t go into overtime.”
The Lightning (3-1-1) are a good example. They’ve earned points in four of their first five games, but they haven’t scored in their last five regulation periods.
Tampa Bay started the season by outscoring its opponents 13-5 over its first three games, going 3-0-0, but that might have had more to do with whom it played. The Lightning scored a combined 10 goals in its first two games against the rebuilding Blackhawks.
But if the first two weeks are any indication, offense will be at a premium in the new Central Division.
Against the Lightning, opponents been aggressive on the forecheck and willing to pack their own goal to prevent good scoring looks. That seems to be a trend in the division.
Five Central teams ranked among the top eight in the NHL in save percentage entering Friday, led by the Lightning and Hurricanes, who were tied for third best at 95.1. Nashville, which begins a scheduled two-game series against Tampa Bay tonight at Amalie Arena, ranked fourth at 94.3. Florida was seventh (93.8 ) and Dallas eighth (93.3).
As teams in the division make up rescheduled games, some of those numbers might even out compared with the rest of the league. But …
“It’s going to be tough to score on all these (division) teams,” Cooper said. “And so I think you’re going to see a lot more games go to overtime than probably a lot of these other divisions.”
Thursday’s game was a good example. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and Hurricanes counterpart Petr Mrazek were great. Neither allowed a goal until 72 seconds into overtime, when Carolina forward Martin Necas scored on Vasilevskiy. Both teams had plenty of chances offensively, but defense reigned.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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