In the NHL, you’re certainly not going to win a Stanley Cup in the month of October. However, if you’re not careful, a bad start can leave you playing catch-up the rest of the way. The Tampa Bay Lightning know this all too well.
Two years ago, the Lightning stumbled off to a slow start that included a 5-4-0 October record, eventually missing the playoffs by one point. Last season, the Lightning roared out to a 10-2-1 October record en route to an Atlantic Division title. So far in 2018-19, their performance in the season’s first month looks pretty similar to last year.
Tampa Bay recently completed their first road trip of the season, which is also their longest trip of the year. They split a back-to-back with Minnesota and Chicago, losing to the Wild 5-4 in overtime and dominating Chicago 6-3. The Bolts followed that up with an entertaining game in Colorado in which they prevailed 1-0 thanks to 29 saves from Andrei Vasilevskiy and a Nikita Kucherov goal. Another back-to-back ended the trip, as they beat Vegas 3-2, but received a 7-1 drubbing by Arizona. The victory over Vegas proved costly, as the Lightning lost defenseman Victor Hedman for at least a week with an upper-body injury, while Ondrej Palat suffered a lower-body injury in that game that left him day-to-day.
Despite the injuries and the disappointing end to the trip, taking seven out of 10 points in a five-game road swing is certainly not a bad thing. Sitting at 7-2-1, the Lightning return home for a busy week. They’ll host two games at Amalie Arena before hitting the road again for a key early back-to-back against a pair of surprising division rivals.
Tuesday, October 30th vs. New Jersey, 7:30 pm
The Lightning’s first-round opponent from last season’s playoffs, the New Jersey Devils, make the first of two visits to Amalie Arena this season in what will be the first game of a seven-game road trip for them. The Devils remain tied for the fewest games played in the NHL thanks to starting the season in Europe, but maintain a record of 5-2-1.
Following a 4-0-0 start, New Jersey went 0-2-1 but righted their ship with a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers on home ice on Saturday afternoon. Keith Kinkaid, filling in for Cory Schneider while the latter is working a rehab assignment in the AHL, made 35 saves in the victory. Kinkaid has played in every game so far and has posted an impressive 2.12 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. Taylor Hall, the reigning Hart Trophy winner, has nine assists and 11 points and is on a seven-game point streak. Nico Hischier, 2017’s first-overall pick, continues to grow and develop, notching five assists and eight points so far. However, nobody on the Devils is lighting it up quite like Kyle Palmieri, who leads New Jersey with eight goals and 13 points.
The Devils prove to be an interesting case in both regular stats and advanced analytics.
Although New Jersey is only 19th in shots on goal per game, they are sixth-best in shots allowed per contest with 28.9. They’re also tied for sixth in offense at 3.50 goals per game and tied for 4th in goals against, allowing just 2.5 a game. The Devils are an intriguing team from an analytical perspective, as they don’t generate as many chances as other teams, but when they do, they create high-quality opportunities. For instance, they rank 20th in Corsi For percentage (all shot attempts) at 5-on-5, but sit eighth in Fenwick For percentage (unblocked shot attempts) at 5-on-5. When it comes to scoring chances at 5-on-5, they rank 12th at 51.13%. However, nobody generates high-danger chances like New Jersey, as they’ve controlled 66.35% of such opportunities at five-aside, the highest mark in the league.
Thursday, November 1st vs. Nashville, 7:30 pm
The league’s reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners make their only appearance at Amalie Arena on Thursday night in a brief one-game trip in between home games against Vegas on Tuesday and Boston on Saturday. Following a five-game winning streak, the Predators have lost two of their last three, including a 5-3 setback at home to the Edmonton Oilers. Filip Forsberg notched his sixth-career hat trick in the loss, and sits in a tie for second in the NHL with 10 goals. Despite the loss, Nashville is still in a tie at the top of the Western Conference with 16 points on the strength of an 8-3-0 record.
However, they’ve had to do it without starting goalie Pekka Rinne, who went down with an injury on October 19 and has been admirably replaced by Juuse Saros since then. Saros is considered by some to be the heir apparent for the Predators since Rinne will be a UFA next summer. Offensively, the Preds have been led up front by the line of Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson, who have combined for 38 points in 11 games. However, this is still a team whose blue line drives play, as P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi continue to hold things down on the back end.
The Predators have been riding a high shooting and save percentage, but have struggled on special teams.
Breaking this team down statistically, they’ve actually been below average in shots per game taken and allowed. They sit 20th in shots per game at 30.6, and are 19th in shots allowed per game at 30.5. On the advanced analytics side of things, Nashville is just slightly above the 50% mark in both Corsi and Fenwick at 5-on-5, putting them 12th in both categories. When it comes to scoring chances, the Predators generate 53.05% of them at 5-on-5, good for seventh in the league, while ranking 11th in high-danger 5-on-5 chances at 52.3%. They’ve been riding a solid save percentage and a hot shooting percentage, as they rank seventh and fifth, respectively, in those categories at 5-on-5. However, their power play sits at 25th in the league, while their penalty killing ranks 23rd.
Saturday, November 3rd at Montreal, 7 pm
The Lightning will start their quick two-game weekend trip against a very surprising Montreal Canadiens team who sits at third in the Atlantic Division at 6-2-2. Before the season started, most pundits and fans figured the Habs would be rebuilding unless goaltender Carey Price put the team on his shoulders like past seasons. While Price has returned to form, his teammates have not been passengers. They’ve actually played very well in front of him. However, having one of the best goalies in the world shutting things down helps, as Price most recently posted the 41st shutout of his career in Saturday’s 3-0 win at Boston. With that win, Price also passed Patrick Roy for second place in team history with his 290th win. He now sits 24 wins behind Jacques Plante for first place in Canadiens history.
While the Habs are 15th in goals per game and tied for 4th in goals-against per game, they’ve gotten a balance of contributions offensively. Brendan Gallagher is off to a hot start, scoring six goals in 10 games. New acquisition Max Domi leads the team with 11 points, thanks to five goals and six assists. Tomas Tatar, also acquired in an offseason trade, has revived his career in Montreal with three goals and eight points. Jonathan Drouin has points in six of his last seven games, while Paul Byron has four goals and seven points. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, their 18-year-old rookie, has proven he belongs with four assists and positive possession stats so far. Even the blue line has stepped up in Shea Weber’s absence, most notably Jeff Petry and Xavier Ouellet.
Montreal has proven to be no slouch despite average special teams.
While the Habs currently sit at 19th on both the power play and the penalty kill, they have had a much better advanced statistics profile at 5-on-5. As of this writing, they rank 10th in both Corsi and Fenwick at five-a-side, while sitting at eighth in the NHL in percentage of shots generated. While they only generate 49.38% of the 5-on-5 scoring chances and 46.24% of the 5-on-5 high-danger chances (ranking 20th and 23rd, respectively), they score on 9.09% of their 5-on-5 shots, tied for eighth in the league. Combine that with Price’s excellent play, and you have a team that has been one of the surprises of the league a month into the season.
Sunday, November 4th at Ottawa, 7 pm
Tampa Bay closes out the week with another back-to-back, as they’ll head to Ottawa to take on another surprise division rival in the Ottawa Senators. The difference with this back-to-back is that this game is also the second of a back-to-back for the Senators as well. Expected to be a doormat this season, the Sens have begun 4-5-1. While that’s not a great start, it’s much better than what the hockey world thought we’d get from Ottawa in October. However, the Sens have gone 0-2-1 in their last three, including a 4-3 overtime setback in Vegas in which they were out-shot 53-22.
Goalie Craig Anderson has become known for having a solid season every other year. Last year was a rough season not only for him, but for the Sens as a franchise. So far this season, his numbers haven’t been special, but he’s been a big reason the Sens have been in some games, including that contest in Vegas. After trading superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson to jump-start their rebuild, young blue-liner Thomas Chabot has been a revelation in his second season, leading Ottawa with 11 points and tying for the team lead with 8 assists.
During the first game of Ottawa’s current three-game road trip, Matt Duchene scored a pair of goals against his former teammates in Colorado in a 6-3 loss to the Avalanche. Rookie d-man Maxime Lajoie and star winger Mark Stone each have four goals and seven points. Rookie winger Brady Tkachuk tallied three goals and three assists in just four games. Unfortunately for the Sens, he’s still expected to miss a few more weeks due to a leg injury.
Despite the better-than-expected start, the Senators look like a team due for a major regression.
Ottawa is seventh in goals per-game, but also allows the fourth-most goals per game in the league. Although they’ve been scoring goals, they take the fifth-fewest total shots per game and allow the second-most total shots per contest. When it comes to 5-on-5 hockey, Ottawa keeps getting caved in from a puck-possession standpoint. They currently rank 30th in the league in Corsi and 29th in Fenwick, meaning the opposition is creating the majority of the scoring chances. The Sens only take 43.37% of shots on goal at 5-on-5, ranking 29th, while they’re 28th in total scoring chances while at five-a-side. In addition, the Sens don’t create a lot of high-danger chances at even strength, ranking 27th in the league in that category at 43.56%.
What’s keeping Ottawa afloat right now is the fact they have the second-highest shooting percentage at 5-on-5 at just under 11.2%. That high shooting percentage has helped offset their team save percentage at 5-on-5 of .915, which puts them at 18th in the NHL. If they don’t pick things up defensively, Ottawa will be in trouble if they stop converting the chances they do get.
The Sens finish up their road trip on Tuesday in Arizona before taking on Buffalo in a home-and-home right before hosting the Lightning.
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