On Saturday night, the Lightning extended their points streak to 14 games after rallying for a thrilling 6-5 win over the Montreal Canadiens at Amalie Arena. Sitting at 13-0-1 during that streak, Tampa Bay opened up an eight-point lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs for the top spot in both the Atlantic Division and the NHL.
The Bolts continue to be buoyed by Steven Stamkos, who has scored 14 goals in December, the most by a Lightning player in one calendar month in franchise history. Nikita Kucherov’s point streak stands at 10 games and counting, joining some rare company in the process:
Nikita Kucherov became the 14th different player in NHL history to post multiple point streaks of 10 or more games in consecutive seasons.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 30, 2018
All is well so far with the Bolts, who are 16-1-1 and haven’t suffered a regulation loss in December. They have 62 points through 39 games, the same as the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, who set the NHL record with 132 points that season. This is a team that continues to find ways to win in any sort of situation, and continues to find ways to rally when trailing. Tampa Bay seeks to end the month of December undefeated in regulation when they begin a three-game trip through California on New Year’s Eve. A year ago, the Lightning steamrolled through the three California teams on that west coast trip, defeating San Jose 5-1, Los Angeles 5-2, and Anaheim 2-1.
This season, one of those teams is about where we thought they’d be, one of them is a lot worse than we thought they’d be, and the other is barely holding onto a playoff spot thanks to some incredible goaltending. Earlier this month, the Bolts went 3-0-1 on a four-game swing through Western Canada. Can they keep their point streak going on another trip through the Western Conference?
Monday, December 31 at Anaheim, 8 pm
The last time the Lightning suffered a loss in regulation was on November 27 at Amalie Arena by a 3-1 score. The opponent? The Anaheim Ducks. The same Ducks team that has followed up a four-game winning streak by losing five in a row (0-4-1). Their most recent loss, a 5-4 overtime setback on home ice, came against a Coyotes team who is 4-8-0 in their last 12, with only one of those victories coming in regulation. Anaheim currently sits in the first wild card spot in the Western Conference with 44 points, four behind Vegas for third place in the Pacific Division and just one ahead of Dallas, who resides in the second wild card position.
The main reason they’re sitting in their current position is the play of goaltender John Gibson. Anaheim gives up the second-most shots in the league (34.8), but Gibson is having a Vezina-caliber season. While his goals-against average (2.53) doesn’t stand out, his save percentage (.927) certainly does. What’s even more impressive are his numbers at 5-on-5. Among goalies who have played at least 700 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey, his goals-against average sits at 2.01 and his save percentage is a gaudy .937, ranking fifth and fourth, respectively.
In addition, among that same group of goaltenders, he has the best goals saved above average (GSAA) in the league at an astounding 12.98. He’s had to be that good since the Ducks have been getting caved in at 5-on-5, ranking near the bottom of most major puck possession metrics while also scoring the second-fewest goals per game in the league at 2.41. When the Lightning and Ducks last met, Tampa Bay got caught up in Anaheim’s game, which is to slow the pace of the game down and make it hard to get through the neutral zone, something the Lightning will have to avoid in this meeting. This contest will be the second game of a six-game homestand for Anaheim.
Thursday, January 3 at Los Angeles, 10:30 pm
While the Ducks have struggled to score, the offensive issues are even worse for their rivals up the freeway in Los Angeles. Before the season began, there was optimism that the Kings could make one more playoff push with their current aging core before changes would inevitably have to be made. Unfortunately for them, this season has been a disaster from the beginning, as they sit in last place in the entire NHL with just 33 points. The glory days of their Stanley Cup titles earlier this decade are long gone, and now L.A. is staring down the barrel of an inevitable rebuild. The Ilya Kovalchuk signing hasn’t panned out, injuries have shelved aging goalie Jonathan Quick, and the Kings score the fewest goals per game in the NHL at 2.29. As of this writing, they are one of only two teams to score fewer than 100 goals, as they currently have 89. By comparison, the Lightning lead the league with 166 goals scored.
Earlier this season, the Kings canned head coach John Stevens and put Willie Desjardin in charge on an interim basis. They’ve also traded Tanner Pearson to Pittsburgh straight up for Carl Hagelin, a move that will eventually clear out cap space since Hagelin is a pending UFA and a trade deadline trade wouldn’t be shocking. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see Los Angeles make some more moves with the intention of either clearing cap space or acquiring picks and prospects to bring in some youth and an infusion of talent. In a league geared towards speed and puck possession, the Kings’ slow, plodding style has been left in the dust. Making moves will be easier said than done since so much of their cap space is tied up in older veterans who still have multiple years left on their contracts.
This will be the first meeting of the season between these two teams. The Lightning swept both meetings in 2017-18. Despite their season-long struggles, the Kings had won four in a row before dropping a 4-1 decision on home ice to the Golden Knights. They’ll play a back-to-back on the road against Colorado on Monday and Vegas on Tuesday before returning home to host the Bolts.
Saturday, January 5 at San Jose, 11 pm
Further up the California coast, the San Jose Sharks have had no problems putting the puck in the back of the net, as they rank eighth in goals per game (3.28) while sitting in a tie with the Lightning for 15th in goals allowed per game (2.92). The Sharks have 49 points and occupy third place in the Pacific Division, just one point behind Calgary and Vegas, who are tied for the top spot in the division. San Jose is 9-2-2 in their last 13 games, including an impressive 7-4 victory in Edmonton on Saturday night in which Erik Karlsson tallied a goal and three assists in his return from a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head. Karlsson, acquired from the Ottawa Senators in a blockbuster trade, has a goal and 13 assists in a nine-game point streak.
Unlike their counterparts in Los Angeles and Anaheim, San Jose’s core is getting older, but they’re still productive. Joe Pavelski ages like fine wine, as his 23 goals have him in a four-way tie for sixth place in the league. The usual suspects, such as Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, and Logan Couture continue to produce, although Evander Kane has cooled off after signing a long-term extension in the offseason. Goaltender Martin Jones, who has been mostly reliable since arriving in San Jose a few years back, has struggled this season, posting a 2.83 GAA and .899 save percentage. However, the Sharks have been able to offset that with some of the best puck possession metrics at 5-on-5 in the league.
Last season, the Lightning swept a multi-game season series from the Sharks for the first time since the 2002-03 season. This will be the first of two meetings between the teams this season. Tampa Bay is 9-9-0 with a tie all-time against the Sharks at the SAP Center, winning three of their last four visits there. San Jose will finish up their three-game road trip with games in Calgary and Colorado before welcoming the Lightning to town.
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