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Now that Vasilevskiy is back, the real work begins for the Lightning

John Romano | Tampa Bay remains a work in progress, but there are signs it still can be a force if it just avoids defensive lapses.
 
Just about two months after undergoing back surgery, Andrei Vasilevskiy returned to the active roster on Friday night in an 8-2 victory at Carolina. He is now 265-123-28 in his NHL career with another 65 wins in the postseason.
Just about two months after undergoing back surgery, Andrei Vasilevskiy returned to the active roster on Friday night in an 8-2 victory at Carolina. He is now 265-123-28 in his NHL career with another 65 wins in the postseason. [ KARL B DEBLAKER | AP ]
Published Nov. 25, 2023|Updated Nov. 25, 2023

TAMPA — For one night, they dazzled again. It was as if free agency and the salary cap were just minor details in a grander tale.

For one night in Raleigh, North Carolina, Nikita Kucherov was brilliant, Brayden Point was swift and Steven Stamkos was ageless. For one night in an 8-2 win at Carolina, Andrei Vasilevskiy was healthy and the rest of the hockey world was wondering how any of this was possible.

For one night.

There is still much for the Lightning to prove. We have seen too many lapses and too much on-ice messiness to automatically assume the Lightning are back to their old selves just because Vasilevskiy returned after a month’s absence.

But we have seen the promise at times, and on Friday night we saw it in full orchestration, even it was greatly aided by Carolina penalties. The trick is whether Tampa Bay can play with this much juice and defensive discipline for more than a handful of games at a time.

For the Lightning have more foes than most. They are not just competing against the Maple Leafs, Panthers and Bruins, but also against the memories of themselves. They are taking on the expectations that naturally come when you’ve won 24 more postseason games than anyone else in your conference the past six years.

But there is a world of difference between this team and the Lightning of the recent past. The depth has been stripped away by the flat salary cap, and it’s not easy to replicate the high-speed precision that comes from a group of skaters that grew up together.

The Lightning's Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates his second goal Friday night against the Carolina Hurricanes with teammates Erik Cernak (81) and Brandon Hagel (38).
The Lightning's Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates his second goal Friday night against the Carolina Hurricanes with teammates Erik Cernak (81) and Brandon Hagel (38). [ KARL B DEBLAKER | AP ]

That doesn’t mean they are not capable of reaching the conference finals or beyond.

It just means they are no longer the obvious favorite.

Consider them a work in progress. The Lightning have played nearly 100 postseason games in the past six seasons, but just about half the players on the current roster have never won a playoff series in a Tampa Bay uniform. That’s a lot of new blood to integrate into a specific style of play.

At times, you can see it coming together. The Lightning are averaging 3.71 goals per game, which leads the Eastern Conference and is the most they’ve scored since 2018-19. At other times, you wonder if the pieces will ever mesh. They are giving up 3.52 goals per game, which is second-worst in the conference and the most they’ve allowed during the Jon Cooper era.

And do not assume that Vasilevskiy, 29, is the lone answer to their defensive woes. He makes them better, no doubt about that. He is, after all, the only active goalie in the NHL with both a Conn Smythe and a Vezina in his duffel bag. The real difference between him and backup Jonas Johansson is that Vasilevskiy will occasionally steal a game the Lightning had no business winning.

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But, for the most part, Vasilevskiy provides stability. Almost as if he were a safety net the team was missing. Since his first season as a full-time starter in 2015-16, the Lightning have earned an average of 1.39 points per game. When other goalies have been in the net, the Lightning have averaged 1.26 points per game. That’s a significant difference, for sure, but it’s not going to turn the season around.

The Carolina Hurricanes' Michael Bunting (58) has his shot turned away by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during Friday's game in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Carolina Hurricanes' Michael Bunting (58) has his shot turned away by Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during Friday's game in Raleigh, North Carolina. [ KARL B DEBLAKER | AP ]

The bigger issue for the Lightning is eliminating a lot of the high-end, quality scoring chances they have surrendered throughout the first month. The outrageously high goal total has been more of a skater problem than a goaltender issue, and Vasilevskiy cannot solve that on his own.

This is more about turnovers that lead to rushes. It’s more about losing track of forwards in front of the net. It’s more about forwards getting back on defense and defensemen getting out of position. It’s about knowing when to take chances and understanding how to play with a lead.

If you go by points percentage, the Lightning are sitting in a playoff position this morning. Not a high seed, but not bad for a team missing its goaltender and integrating a lot of new faces in the lineup. To be honest, they’re pretty close to where they should be.

But they’re not good enough. Even while going 4-0-1 over the past 10 days, they are not playing the type of hockey that will win games in the postseason. And that’s what the next 61 games will be about. They want to continue playing at a high speed but without those 10-15 minutes every night when they stop playing defense.

They did that Friday night in Raleigh.

Can they keep it up?

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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