Since a 3-1 loss on home ice to the Anaheim Ducks on November 27, the Tampa Bay Lightning have morphed into the hottest team in the NHL. Winners of six in a row and nine of their last 10, the Bolts have opened up a six-point lead in the Atlantic Division over second-place Toronto and a nine-point advantage over third-place Buffalo.
That winning streak has been highlighted by an incredible 30 goals scored. While goalie Louis Domingue hasn’t put up eye-popping stats since taking over the crease for an injured Andrei Vasilevskiy, he’s 13-4-0 this season and has displayed a knack for the timely save when Tampa Bay has needed it the most. While the eye-popping goal total during that streak stands out, the Lightning have found different ways to win no matter the situation.
Whether it’s by way of topsy-turvy back-and-forth affairs (5-4 over Buffalo and 6-5 in a shootout at Detroit), rallying from a deficit (5-4 OT at Florida after trailing 4-1 in the second period), holding off a rival (3-2 over Boston), or by sheer domination (5-1 at New Jersey and 7-1 over Colorado), the Lightning continue to pile up the wins no matter the situation. In addition, they’ve been among the league leaders in puck possession metrics during that streak, finding themselves in the top three in the NHL at 5-on-5 in Corsi (shot attempt percentage), Fenwick (unblocked shot attempt percentage), shots on goal percentage, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances.
Sitting in first place in the entire NHL, the Lightning look to continue their winning ways as they close out their home-stand with a pair of games before beginning a four-game Canadian trip.
Monday, December 10 vs. N.Y. Rangers, 7:30 pm
Coming into this season, not much was expected out of a rebuilding Rangers team looking to lay a foundation for the future. However, New York turned out to be one of the league’s more unexpected surprised all the way through Thanksgiving. Since then, the Rangers have fallen two points out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to a 3-5-0 stretch in their last eight games. They ended a three-game losing streak on Saturday thanks to a 5-4 shootout win against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise that saw them lose a two-goal lead in the first period and a one-goal lead in the third. New York’s schedule has been unusual as of late, as their game in Sunrise was their first since a 4-3 shootout loss at home to Winnipeg on December 2. After their visit to Amalie Arena on Monday, they’ll get three days off before hosting Arizona on Thursday.
While the Lightning have been one of the league’s top puck possession teams in the league this season, the Rangers have been one of the worst, frequently chasing the puck while at 5-on-5. At even strength, New York ranks 29th in Corsi, Fenwick, and actual shots on goal percentage, 27th in percentage of scoring chances, and 17th in high-danger chances.
While recent injuries to Mats Zuccarello, Pavel Buchnevich, and Vlad Namestnikov (who returned Saturday) have hurt, the Rangers’ 5-on-5 play has been a sore spot. Henrik Lundqvist has proven he still has something left in the tank between the pipes. Among goalies that have played at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, Lundqvist is 10th in save percentage at .932, 14th in goals-against average at 2.18, and is sixth in GSAA (goals saved above average) at 7.54. While Lundqvist might be in the twilight of his career, he’s keeping a young Rangers team afloat in the standings.
Thursday, December 13 vs. Toronto, 7:30 pm
One of the more highly-anticipated contests of the season takes place at Amalie Arena when the division rival Maple Leafs show up for the first of four meetings against the Bolts, marking the end of Tampa Bay’s four-game home-stand and the third game of a five-game trip for the Leafs. On paper, this should be a back-and-forth, high-flying, and potentially high-scoring affair, as the Lightning and Maple Leafs are the two highest-scoring teams in the NHL. While the Bolts have won their last six, the Leafs have lost two in a row, a 5-4 OT setback to Detroit and a 6-3 loss in Boston to begin their current trip. They’ll head to Carolina on Tuesday before taking on the Bolts. There has been no shortage of headlines coming out of Toronto this season, as forward William Nylander ended his holdout, signing a six-year deal worth $6.9 million a season at the 11th hour on December 1.
The Maple Leafs have been what we thought they’d be this season. In terms of star power and offensive production, they’re one of the few teams that can go toe-to-toe with Tampa Bay in that department. John Tavares has been as good as advertised, Mitch Marner continues to ascend to superstar status with 34 assists and 40 points, Auston Matthews keeps maintaining his superstar status when healthy, and Morgan Rielly is playing the best hockey of his career on the blue line.
The problem for Toronto, as its been for the last couple of years, is their play in the defensive zone, as they not only give up the fifth-most shots on goal per game, but they’re in the middle of the pack or worse in puck possession due to the amount of chances they give up on a nightly basis. However, this has been offset by the fact the Leafs lead the league in PDO (combined shooting and save percentage) at 5-on-5 at 1.033. Toronto is third in 5-on-5 shooting percentage at 10.01% and third in 5-on-5 save percentage at .933. At even strength, goalie Frederik Andersen’s save percentage is .933, his goals-against average is 2.25, while his GSAA is a fantastic 9.52. While the Leafs remain the top threat to the Lightning in the Atlantic, it won’t be shock to see them be buyers for a defenseman at the trade deadline or before.
Sunday, December 16 at Winnipeg at 7 pm
Tampa Bay begins a four-game swing through Western Canada on Sunday evening when they travel to Winnipeg for the first of two meetings this season with the Jets. Heading into Sunday’s home contest against Philadelphia, Winnipeg sits at third place in a very tight Central Division race with 36 points, three behind Nashville and Colorado, who are tied for first place. The Jets saw a four-game winning streak come to an end on Friday night in a 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues at Bell MTS Place. The Jets have been led by Patrik Laine, who is tied with Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point for second in the league with 21 goals. Mark Scheifele’s well-rounded stat line of 16 goals and 16 assists are even more impressive considering he faces top competition as the Jets’ top center every night. Kyle Connor continues to make a case for a nice long-term extension next summer, while Blake Wheeler has chipped in 32 assists and 36 total points. Dustin Byfuglien, who just returned from injury after missing four games, keeps playing important minutes on Winnipeg’s blue line.
Much like Toronto, Winnipeg has not been a dominant team at 5-on-5, although they’re slightly above average in Corsi, Fenwick, shots percentage, and scoring chance percentage while at even strength. They’ve been outscoring their problems this season, ranking ninth in goals per game at 3.32 and fourth on the power play at 27.3%. Their offensive ability has masked some issues in the defensive zone, but a large contributing factor to that has been the play of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. A Vezina Trophy finalist last season, Hellebuyck has fallen back to Earth so far in 2018-19. His 5-on-5 stats have not been impressive up to this point, as he’s sporting a save percentage of .904 at even strength, along with a GAA of 2.85. His GSAA at 5-on-5 is also underwhelming, as he’s allowing 7.17 more goals than the league average. While Winnipeg continues to reside near the top of the league standings, they’ll need Hellebuyck to rediscover his game if they’re going to maintain their current position in a tough division.
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