Tweaks here and there turn Lightning above great
Open playoffs at home tonight
TAMPA, Fla. _ The scorers? They’re the same.
The six players who led the Lightning in points last season, are in near-identical order again this season.
The goaltender? No change there.
Andrei Vasilevskiy missed more than a month with a broken foot in November but, by season’s end, his save percentage was within .005 of last year.
The reigning Norris Trophy winner?
Victor Hedman may have gotten a little more rest this season and his offensive numbers may have dipped a bit, but he is still among the league’s elite defensemen.
So what’s the difference? How did the Lightning make the leap from a snazzy 54-win team in 2017-18 to a history-stalking 62 wins in 2018-19 entering their opening playoff game tonight against Columbus? There were no big-name free agents in the offseason. No trades at the deadline.
The players like to say it was their uncommon focus and purpose through 82 games and, sure, that played a role. But every NHL team is focused and motivated once the postseason arrives.
So is there reason to believe this Lighting team is better positioned than last year as the playoffs begin?
“There’s a lot that’s different about this group. Whether that’s going to spell success or not, that’s hard to say,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We are a different team.”
A plan to solidify the defense worked. Sort of.
It happened a little later than hoped for, and with a different combination than expected, but Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak have given the Lightning the shutdown pair the franchise has been seeking.
The Lightning got off to a good start on the penalty kill in October with six consecutive games without a goal, but that was due more to Vasilevskiy’s prowess in goal. Come November, Tampa Bay gave up 13 power play goals in a ninegame stretch.
Meetings were called, video was dissected and strategies were tweaked. The Lightning decided to get more aggressive in terms of pushing up ice.
Players such as Anthony Cirelli, Cedric Paquette, Alex Killorn, Daniel Callahan and Yanni Gourde took ownership, and the penalty kill went from liability to strength almost overnight.