A few nights ago the Tampa Bay Lightning took the ice against someone other than the Florida Panthers for the first time in what felt like forever. The first two games of the season against the Cats left more questions and concerns than most fans cared to admit. In came the Washington Capitals including red hot goal scorer Alex Ovechkin and his back to back hat tricks. The Lightning came out and looked like a completely different team than we had seen so far. Carrying play early and often. Winning the possession battle. And eventually having their hard work pay off with another notch in the win column.
Here are my “5 Things of Note” from the game.
1) Paramount Possession
The first two games of the season saw the Bolts being dominated in possession. Badly. The process was bad and the results were luckily not completely reflective of that. This game was almost a complete 180 degree turn around. The only time the Capitals had any real scoring threats or consistent pressure was when they were on the power play. The Lightning out attempted the Caps immensely, to the tune of a 65/35 CF% split. This is the type of play we all expected to start the year. Only one line wasn’t well over the 50% mark and that was the PPG line. While the shot attempts weren’t there, they still showed well to the eye, creating offensive zone time and wearing down the Caps defense. If Tampa Bay brings this type of process to the rink more often, they will cruise to a playoff spot.
With Tampa Bay pushing all game to try to climb out of the hole the Caps power play had put them in, Nikita Kucherov took a quick pass in full stride at center ice, got Taylor Chorney crossed up and going the wrong direction, and used a burst of speed to free himself up alone in the slot. Kucherov’s only option was a backhand. With little to no room available, Kucherov did something maybe five other guys in the NHL would be capable of. Completely roofed a backhander at full speed over Grubauer’s short side shoulder and tying the game at three. Kucherov has had a knack for the dramatic his entire career and this was no different. When Tampa Bay needs someone to step up, the Russian Assassin is a good bet to come through.
3) Gifted Grinders
In the last “5 Things of Note”, I spoke about Chris Kunitz and the fourth line simply needing to be better. Jon Cooper may have found a line combination that works on many levels when he put Kunitz with Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette. This line played extremely well all night long. They were one, two, and three in CF% on the team. All being over an enormous 80%. That type of CF% is usually reserved for very low event players so the numbers are a little skewed. However that was not the case on this night, as all three members of the line were involved in 17 or more attempt events. In other words, their shifts comprised of them creating turnovers and scoring chances rather than just grinding down the other team with no reward. On top of all of that, they contributed a goal to the comeback cause. A very successful evening for sure.
4) Sergachev Settling In
The only rookie on the Tampa Bay roster has had all eyes on him since his acquisition in a blockbuster deal during the summer. Thus far, he has not disappointed. Mikhail Sergachev has been extremely poised and steady in his first three games with Tampa Bay. The defensive side of his game has been uneventful, with no glaring mistakes that have led to opponents getting free excessive zone time. The offensive side of his game has yet to be realized, however you can see it is starting to flourish as he gains more confidence with every shift. He came within an inch of scoring what would probably have been the game winning goal late in the third period. Sergachev joined a rush into the offensive zone as a trailer, picking up a deflected puck and grazing the outside of the post of what was a vacated net. With six games to go before a decision has to be made, Sergachev has all but proven he belongs. Sending him down at this point makes little sense, as with Sergachev, the only direction is up.
5) “Slumping” Stamkos
The return of Stamkos after his injury was long anticipated. Stamkos has played well so far this season. Has contributed on both ends of the ice and a few assists on the score sheet. No doubt he’s still shaking the rust off and getting his timing dialed in. However, the one thing we haven’t seen from Stamkos yet is the thing he is most known for; his goal scoring. He has yet to pot a goal in the first three games. Undoubtedly, this will change. The question is, how long before he gets the ice breaker? One would think all he needs to do is score the first one, the dam will break, and he will pile up the goals as we are all used to. Until then, contributing in other ways is what he has been doing and most assuredly will continue to do. He has been a top possession skater in every game this season and only shows signs of improving in all facets of the game as he continues to fine tune his motions. No goals from one of the most prolific goal scorers in the league is a little concerning, but it’s not for a lack of scoring chances or attempts. Stamkos will come around sooner rather than later. When he does, you might as well put “U Can’t Touch This” on repeat.
The Tampa Bay Lightning team that showed up against the Capitals is the team that all the preseason hype had stemmed. It’s the team that will make the playoffs. It’s the team that will win the division. And it’s the team that will once again have a deep run at the Stanley Cup. We have always known that the Bolts were capable of this type of play. That’s what makes games like the first two of the season so frustrating. The inconsistency and lack of playing complete games is what has plagued this team the past few years. Its been the difference between good teams and great teams. If the Lightning can perform like they did against the Capitals more often than not this season, we may finally see their full potential.