The Tampa Bay Lightning, for the second consecutive season, are learning to live without star forward Steven Stamkos for extended periods. Last season, Stamkos missed time from March 31st until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on May 26th. This season, the Lightning will have to survive a longer stretch, as he is expected to miss four to six months with a meniscus tear on November 15th of this year.
In his absence, both in last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs and early in this season, you have been able to see the true depth of this roster which make the Lightning a very dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. They head to Raleigh for their only trip to PNC Arena today at 5 p.m.
23-year-old Nikita Kucherov has become one of the most dynamic performers in all of the league this season, as he leads the Lightning with 29 points in just 25 games played. For most of the season, he has paired with Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson to form a formidable offensive threat night in and night out.
The story on the rest of head coach John Cooper’s roster is much the same as the breakout of Kucherov, in that young stars seem to be emerging out of the shadow of Stamkos in his absence. Star defenseman Victor Hedman continues to perform at an extremely high level, and has begun to be considered one of the best blueline performers in the game. His 19 points is good for third on the team, and is also third among defensemen across the league, just behind Eric Karlsson and Brent Burns.
Jonathan Drouin, Vladimir Namestnikov, Alex Killorn, and Brayden Point provide the secondary scoring punch for the Lightning and help make all four lines offensively dangerous. They have allowed above league average amounts of shots and scoring chances, but produce them in such abundance themselves that they more than compensate.
In net, Ben Bishop has accepted the slight majority of the work ahead of Andrej Vasilevskiy. Bishop, on the final year of his deal, is seen as a bit of a lame duck and could possibly be a trade piece later in this season, should the Lightning finally decide to run full time with Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy has posted a sterling .930 save percentage and a 2.24 goals against average in 10 starts, while Bishop has settled for a .907 save percentage and 2.85 goals against in his 16 starts.
Two of the most dynamic special teams units in all of hockey will meet today, as the #1 rated Lightning power play (24.18%) goes up against the top-rated Hurricanes penalty kill (90.63%). If you are looking for evidence of how effective the Lightning power play is, look no further than this evidence from last night:
So while the Canes possess a very potent penalty kill, testing that today could lead to trouble. On the other side of special teams, the Lightning have had far less success killing penalties, as they rank only 22nd in kill percentage and have allowed the ninth-most power play opportunities thus far. Getting onto and converting on the power play will be a key factor for the Canes as they try to win this battle between two teams coming off a back-to-back.
The Lightning come into the game with a 14-11-1 record, good for 29 points and a slot as a Eastern Conference wild card as of now. While this is not exactly a fast start, similar to last season expect them to go on a tear sometime soon to elevate themselves within the Atlantic Division. The mix of talent, youth and experience in Tampa Bay is one of the best in the NHL, so expect to see this team again play deep into the playoffs.
What To Watch For
- Expect to see Vasilevskiy in net for Tampa Bay, as Bishop started last night in the Lightning’s 2-1 shootout win over the Washington Capitals.
- Watch to see who Bill Peters throws out at forward against the Victor Hedman pairing, will he try to use his grinding Stalberg-McClement-Nordstrom line? Also, see what D-Pairing Peters uses to attempt to match the Kucherov line. I would expect to see Slavin and Pesce get that assignment for much of the night.
- Cam Ward will be in net for Carolina. He has not produced a victory against the Lightning since March 10, 2012, going 0 for 5 since that win. He will need to be sharp against this deadly Lightning attack.