TAMPA — The Lightning have passed the regular-season’s midway point, surviving their share of obstacles to put themselves second in the league standings entering Saturday’s games.
“It’s been a grind to get here, but I like where we’re at,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You can’t ask for much more than what these guys have given us through (the first half of the season). We’ve still got a long way to go. … It’s been a weird year, but we’re getting through it.”
The half-season mark is as good a time as any to assess the Lightning’s state and what we might find out in the coming weeks.
What we know
They can handle adversity
The Lightning completed a playoff run to the Stanley Cup without Steven Stamkos for all but one game in 2019-20. They lifted the Cup after not having Nikita Kucherov throughout the regular season in 2021. This season, they have been without Kucherov for 32 games and Brayden Point for 14 because of injuries, plus they went through a three-week period in which nine players and three coaches went through the COVID-19 protocol.
They have proven that they can handle any road bump — even when they’re down to four defensemen in a game, as they were in a 6-4 win against the Kings on Tuesday — and come out of it with points. When they found out 2½ hours before a Dec. 21 game at the Golden Knights that Cooper would be unavailable after entering the COVID-19 protocol, the assistant coaches seamlessly took over. This group doesn’t get flustered by the unexpected.
They adjust to personnel losses
The biggest question coming into the season was how the Lightning would replace their third line after the offseason departures of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. They knew they would unlikely be able to duplicate the chemistry that group had, but they could assemble lines that could tilt the ice in similar ways.
A veteran third line of Pat Maroon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry evolved into the Lightning’s most dependable. (Maroon nicknamed them the “school bus” line because they carry each other.) The fourth line — the “kid line” — of Boris Katchouk, Ross Colton and Taylor Raddysh also has had its moments in terms of fundamentally getting the puck deep, maintaining possession and establishing zone time. But with all the lineup shuffling due to missed games, the Lightning have also learned they have a pretty flexible group.
Take Perry’s recent move to the top line with Point and Kucherov in the absence of injured Ondrej Palat. Perry, an offseason free-agent signing who has been a good fit for the Lightning, has adapted well to a different style of play from the one he had on the third line. And he is not the only player to thrive on various lines.
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Veteran leaders remain dependable
The Lightning wouldn’t be where they are without Stamkos and Victor Hedman, and as the longtime cornerstone players, they’re typically asked to carry a lot of the load. They had impressive first halves. Stamkos, 31, entered Saturday tied for sixth in the league in points, and his eight power-play goals helped carry the man advantage when Point and Kucherov were out. Hedman, 31, was tied for the most points among defensemen with 43 while averaging more than 25 minutes of ice time.
It might just be that both are feeling better physically. Their biggest obstacle is remaining healthy. Stamkos hasn’t played a full season in awhile, and Hedman’s performance fell off when he played through the end of last season with a torn meniscus. But they have learned how to manage their bodies better over the years, which should help them.
What we don’t know
Will defensive improvement continue?
The Lightning sometimes take goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for granted. He gives his teammates the ultimate confidence that he will be a wall when they need him, but sometimes this season they have leaned on him too much. And when Vasilevskiy might be rusty — like early in the season and when he returned from the COVID-19 protocol — turnovers that lead to odd-man rushes are glaring.
Over the past several weeks, the Lightning have played well overall in the defensive end. They have not been turning the puck over much, and they have limited shots and high-danger scoring chances, which is what they’ll need to do against contending teams such as the Bruins (who don’t allow many chances) and Panthers (who create offense by creating turnovers).
The Lightning have had hiccups defensively, but on the season, they have allowed just 7.6 high-danger scoring chances a game in 5-on-5 play, which was fifth fewest in the league. If that number continues to go down, they should be in good shape.
Will special teams get better?
The short answer is yes. The returns of Point and Kucherov to the power play should help a unit that entered Saturday ranked 17th in the league. And if defenseman Erik Cernak, who is a key piece of the top penalty-kill unit, can stay healthy, that should help a unit that ranked 13th. The forward pairing of Mathieu Joseph and Bellemare has meshed well on the top penalty-killing unit.
As Cooper has said many times, the best way to improve the penalty kill is to limit penalties so it doesn’t have to be on the ice as much. And how can we not have faith in a power-play unit with Hedman, Stamkos, Point and Kucherov?
Will fatigue set in?
No team has played more hockey the past two calendar years than the Lightning, and because of makeup games next month, their February doesn’t have the continuous break they had hoped for. The coaching staff has done a good job of sensing when players are tired and giving them rest. That is especially true with Vasilevskiy, who has played every game of the past two postseasons. The final two months of the regular season are daunting: The Lightning play 31 games over 61 days in March and April, and that includes two road trips west. The Lightning aren’t the youngest team, so body management will be key to keeping players fresh.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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