TAMPA — Even though this season has in no way gone the way they might have anticipated it, the Lightning have to be happy to enter the holiday break atop the overall standings with an NHL-high 44 points.
But you can always hope for more, so in the spirit of the holiday season, here are five Christmas wishes for the Lightning.
To steer clear of COVID trouble
With the omicron variant sweeping through the league, 50 games already have been postponed and most teams shut down operations several days early to quell outbreaks. The most important day may be Sunday, when players return for testing. If the way the league entered the break was any indication, there will be more postponements coming out of it. The Lightning managed to dodge the virus until the final game before the break, when head coach Jon Cooper went into protocol. Though players have been frustrated by a return to last year’s restrictions — which include daily testing, mandatory mask-wearing and isolating on the road — a veteran leadership group will have to make sure they adhere to the rules and anticipate any obstacles an uncertain season might bring.
A healthy Point, Kucherov in the new year
The Lightning earned points in 24 of their first 30 games despite losing Nikita Kucherov in the third game. Brayden Point last played in Game 16 on Nov. 20. So they’ve been without two of their top scorers for nearly half of their games, going 11-2-1 over that stretch. But they’re a better team with Point and Kucherov, especially on the power play, which is mired at No. 18 out of 32 teams. The Lightning should get Point back before the new year and Kucherov a week or two afterward. Individually, they take pressure off others who have helped shoulder the scoring load. But together, their synergy is virtually unmatched. Their return will make the Lightning better by leaps and bounds.
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Fewer and far-between penalties
The Lightning went into the break ranked ninth in minor penalties with 102 but were just six shy of being tied for second-most. They’re committing fewer than they were in the first month of the season but now the issue is the timing of the infractions. They’re coming too close together, which tires out a penalty-kill unit that’s starting to leak oil. Plus, most of their penalties have been silly stick penalties, many away from the puck. The Lightning are currently ranked 21st in penalty-kill percentage (79.07) but are killing them at just a 63.64 percent rate (14 for 22) over their last 10 games. Statistically, they have been one of the best teams 5-on-5, so committing fewer penalties will give them a better shot at success.
Establish an identity line
The Lightning knew replacing their third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow wasn’t going to be easy. Lines like that one are the sum of their parts. While the current third line of Pat Maroon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry isn’t as sleek as its predecessor, it gets the puck deep and plays a heavy game down low. The three are tough to beat for possession in the corners and against the boards and have a knack for getting to the soft spots in front of the net. Maroon called the trio the “School Bus” line because they carry each other, but they’ve been trusted in recent games to set the tone by starting the game.
More good tidings from Vasilevskiy
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is the gift that keeps on giving and the top reason the Lightning are where they are in the standings. Entering the season, there was concern about how the team would handle Vasilevskiy’s playing time to ensure he stayed fresh throughout the season and into the playoffs. He’s played a lot of hockey over the past 16 months and was going to spend February playing high-intensity games in the Olympics. But he won’t be doing that now that NHL players won’t take part in the Games, and backup Brian Elliott has helped to limit his starts. The Lightning are methodical in planning Vasilevskiy’s workload, creating his schedule a month in advance. Since he’s a player who relies on routine, it is an immense help. If he continues to play as he has, the Lightning have a legitimate shot at a third straight Cup.
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