The problem with having a lot of games in hand is that you gotta win ‘em. And lately, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners haven’t been.
After Thursday’s loss in a gunfight against…. Minnesota(?), the Tampa Bay Lightning dropped to ninth in the Eastern Conference in points percentage. They now trail the… Rangers(???) for the last playoff spot in the East based on their current 91.5-point pace.
They still have at least one game in hand on literally everyone in the league, but when you lose four of your last five, gaining only three points and having that win come in overtime, that starts to raise a lot of red flags.
The team’s sweep of the Sabres in Sweden was supposed to be the turning point. They were 6-5-2 before that, but now they’re just 7-5-1 since, so they got one extra point out of the deal. Yes, they’re playing significantly better than they were prior to the overseas trip, but that’s just not good enough for a team with this much talent, or in that position in the standings.
This all comes at a time when the Eastern Conference as a whole is basically holding the door open for them and saying, “Come on in.” Again, the Rangers are better than them by points percentage, and two other teams expected to be at least playoff-competitive (Toronto and Montreal) have been significantly worse.
Again, they’re playing better, but the results aren’t there, and even in November you can start to run out of runway pretty quick if they don’t show up soon. What’s interesting is that they’re playing very similarly to how they did last year (their plus-0.38-xG advantage per 60 in all situations has only dropped to plus-0.36). But Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn’t been good, as he’s well below his expected goals against, costing the team four or so points in the standings. Add those back in and we’re not having this conversation. They’d be a comfortable second in the Atlantic, still holding games in hand.
But when you put Vasilevskiy’s underperformance on top of the fact that just about everyone is scoring at least a little less, including a rather slow start for Nikita Kucherov (which he’s since figured out), and almost every other forward who isn’t Brayden Point coming off as “merely fine,” things get a little tighter.
The question, then, is how much longer this can go on. You’re always going to give a team with this much obvious talent the benefit of the doubt. “They’ll be fine,” and all that. The idea that they could rip off a six-game win streak sometime in the near future — as I’ve often mentioned, 11 of their next 13 games are at home — is extremely believable, even if the slate of opponents is solid throughout.
But because it’s so solid, and because they’ve struggled so much, it’s now very much an issue of not being able to have a ton of confidence. Tomorrow night they host the resurgent Sharks, then the Islanders. After that they travel to Florida. Then they host Boston and Washington in the span of three days, get a brief stretch off before hosting Ottawa and Dallas for two more in three days.
Then comes a road trip for a one-off in Washington before they return home to close the pre-Christmas slate against Florida again, and round out the calendar year hosting Montreal and Detroit. Not a ton of easy points in that slate, so the fact that they’re at home maybe doesn’t help as much as you’d like, given the results in Tampa to date (6-5-1).
The team itself says it’s a D-zone issue, Vasilevskiy says it’s bad bounces. Regardless of what it is, the puck is going into their own net far too often and if something doesn’t change in that regard, Julien Brisebois is going to have to make sure something changes in a very different way.
You hate to do that to a team that is mostly playing well, is loaded with talent, and is coming off the most successful regular season in recent history. But it’s also coming off maybe the worst postseason sweep in recent history and now a deeply disappointing start.
So at some point, you can’t just call mostly good play everywhere except in net “acceptable” and hope it gets better. By now, you’ve already been doing that for two-plus months.
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