December has come and gone, with the Tampa Bay Lightning rolling right along. They haven’t lost a game in regulation time in over a month, since Nov. 27 versus the Anaheim Ducks. For those into math, that’s 16 games with a point. Their record during that span is 15-0-1. Pretty crazy stuff for a sport as unpredictable as hockey, in a league with the parity the NHL has.
Many players have stepped up, from the usual names of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point to depth guys Cedric Paquette, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Backup netminder Louis Domingue filled in admirably when starter Andrei Vasilevskiy was sidelined by injury, as did forward Danick Martel when called upon. Even Erik Cernak has performed above expectations, forcing the Lightning to keep him up and rotate healthy scratches on the back end.
Injuries to key contributors, such as Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman and Vasilevskiy, haven’t been felt in the standings. Others have stepped up in a big way, making sure the team doesn’t miss a beat. In fact, the only people this kind of depth has hurt is the opposition on any given night.
All of this has created a perfect storm, one that is producing jolts of energy at lightning speed. They lead the league in a bunch of different categories, including power play percentage (30.5), goals for (171), goals for per game (4.17) and goal differential (+55) among others. They’re also top five in shots for per game at 33.7.
Offense alone can’t win games though. The Lightning have been good enough defensively, evidenced by the fact every player but Stamkos has a positive plus-minus rating. The captain has found other ways to contribute however, as he’s seen time on the penalty kill and has won over 50 percent of his faceoffs. He’s shooting more too, something that has helped the team on this current run. A run that’s fun both to watch and be a part of.
In saying that, all good things must come to an end. The Lightning are breaking all kinds of records, league-wide and otherwise, but it’s inevitable that someone will stop them. Who that is remains a mystery, though there are a few teams capable of halting the hottest team in hockey.
Lightning Could Fall Prey to the San Jose Sharks
With an offense capable of scoring and a defense that’s stingy, the Lightning could experience their first true loss in over a month Jan. 5 against the Sharks.
Names like Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture top the team’s scoring, but they don’t do it alone. Offseason acquisition Erik Karlsson has settled in nicely, with 33 points in 40 games played. Fourteen of those have come on the man advantage, a place where he has thrived over the years. Young guns Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier are enjoying good years too, reaching double digits in goals and assists.
Defensively, the Sharks are tied for second in the league when it comes to limiting the oppositions shots per game at 28.4. The Lightning, meanwhile, struggle keeping pucks away from their goaltender, allowing opponents an average of 32.4 shots each game.
Special teams will be a toss-up, as the Lightning boast a lethal power play but are middle of the pack on the penalty kill. The Sharks are better on the kill (83.6 percent) than they are with the extra skater (24.6 percent) this season, yet their power play has the ability to strike and strike quick. With Burns and Karlsson manning the point, that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In net, Martin Jones is tied for third in the league with 17 wins. Beyond that, he’s struggled a little, posting a 2.91 goals against average (GAA) and .897 save percentage. He does have one shutout though, something the Lightning must be weary of. Vasilevskiy is fourth in the NHL with 16 wins and tied for fifth with a .924 save percentage. He also has one shutout to his name, so neither team has an edge in goal.
Lightning Could See Streak End Against Buffalo Sabres
A month and a half after beating the Sabres Nov. 29 to begin their current point streak, the Lightning could fall victim to one of this year’s biggest surprises when they travel to snowy Buffalo on Jan. 12, 2019.
The Sabres already have one win over the Lightning this season, with Carter Hutton standing tall in a 2-1 victory at KeyBank Center on Nov. 13, 2018.
On paper, the two teams match up well. They each allow the opponent between 32 and 33 shots per game while shooting the puck on net 32 to 34 times themselves. With top draft picks Stamkos and Jack Eichel on the ice, plus top scorers Kucherov, Point and Jeff Skinner, it’s a wonder none of the games between the two have been particularly high-scoring.
It’s often times come down to which team wins the special teams battle. Both have decent penalty kills, with the Sabres checking in at 83.3% compared to the Lightning’s 82.8%. That was the case in the Nov. 29 win, as Stamkos scored a power play goal early in the third period to pull the teams back even. That set up Paquette’s winner late in regulation.
Goaltending is another area that’s neck-and-neck between the two. The Lightning have allowed 119 total goals against while the Sabres have given up 117. Per game, they each give up under three (2.90 to 2.85). Domingue and Hutton have started both games between these teams, each going 1-1.
Lightning Could Fall Victim to Toronto Maple Leafs
A team with firepower up and down the lineup, it would not come as a shock if the Maple Leafs topped the Lightning in their next matchup on Jan. 17, 2019.
The two teams sit atop the Atlantic Division and have an array of All-Stars, some of whom weren’t selected because every team must be represented. Mitch Marner tops the list of snubs, as he isn’t part of the ‘Last Man In’ fan vote despite having an unbelievable year. He leads the Maple Leafs in points (55) and assists (40) and ties for the team lead in power play points (14).
Center Auston Matthews, selected first overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, is enjoying another superb season. His seven goals on the man advantage and four game-winners top all Maple Leafs skaters, while his 19 goals rank second behind offseason acquisition John Tavares’ 26. Those numbers could easily be higher had he not missed 14 games with a shoulder injury that spoiled an amazing start to his season.
On defense, Morgan Rielly is having a Norris Trophy caliber season. He ranks fourth in the league, with a plus-24 rating, and is tied for the team lead in power play points (14). His 31 assists are second on the Maple Leafs, nine back of the leader Marner. Jake Gardiner is having a solid season himself, tallying 23 points in 40 games. His plus-18 rating is good for third on the team, behind Rielly and veteran Ron Hainsey (+22).
In goal, Frederik Andersen carried much of the weight early before being sidelined by a groin injury. He had 20 wins in 30 starts, good for second in the NHL behind Vegas Golden Knights netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, and a .923 save percentage that is tied for sixth in the league. Backup Garret Sparks had a 6-2-1 record in nine starts, but was recently placed in concussion protocol after being hit in the mask by a shot during practice. That caused the Maple Leafs to call up the recently-acquired Michael Hutchinson and Kasimir Kaskisuo from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
Will one of the teams mentioned above stop the Lightning’s point streak before they set a new franchise record, or could it be someone completely different? There’s no clear answer to this question, but one thing remains certain: somebody will find a way to stop the NHL’s hottest team.
All team statistics courtesy of NHL.com