A big reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning are leading the way in the NHL at the annual bye week and All Star Break is because of the play of the special teams.
The Bolts have drastically improved on the penalty kill this season and that has made a big difference for them. Last season, they only killed off 76.1% of penalties taken, which was good for 28th in the League. Overall this season, the Lightning have been successful in killing off 83.5% of their penalties taken and are ranked sixth overall on the penalty kill. The power play is ranked first overall because they are converting on 29.5% of their opportunities. The man advantage has ranked in the top 10 of the NHL for the past two full seasons.
The Lightning’s penalty kill has seen the same players most of the season in Anthony Cirelli, Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette, Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn, Dan Girardi, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman and Erik Cernak. The penalty kill units have a good mixture of youth and experience. The players are good two-way forwards and the defensemen are mostly veterans with the exception of Cernak. They are willing to block shots and are getting saves from the goaltenders, whether it be Andrei Vasilevskiy or Louis Domingue.
When Tampa is down a man, they are winning some face-offs, which is leading to possession and easier clears. The penalty killers are applying pressure to the puck carrier and not sitting back in the box, just hoping that a shot hits them or the goalie makes the save. Since they are applying pressure, they are forcing some turnovers and making it harder on the opposition to get easy offensive zone entries. They are also getting into shooting and passing lanes forcing the opposition to the outside and making it easier for the goalies since there are less high danger scoring chances.
The biggest reason for the improvement on the penalty kill has been avoiding the failed clears, which were leading to prime scoring chances last season. The Bolts are making smarter plays and finding open teammates so the clears are easier and are less likely to fail. The Lightning are also winning some board battles, supporting each other and getting the puck out of their zone.
The Lightning’s power play just keeps on rolling and with the talent on the two units, it should. The two units each have four forwards and one defenseman, which is the norm in the NHL. There are a few teams with five forwards on their top unit. Tampa’s first unit is made up of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman. The second unit usually has Tyler Johnson on it, but he is out injured so it consists of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Yanni Gourde, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.
The power play is slightly better on the road (32%) than at home (27.5%), but the Bolts have 16 less power play chances on the road. The first unit has combined for 36 of the total 49 power play goals that the Lightning have scored. The top unit has most of the production because they see a majority of the time and are so talented that they usually convert. It is hard for opposing teams to defend because they have so many options that can put the puck in the back of the net. The Lightning do have a solid option for their second power play unit, which some teams really lack.
The second unit doesn’t see as much time on the power play because the top unit is so good. The top unit is either converting on the man advantage or is in the offensive zone for a long time creating chances and making it difficult for the second unit to get on the ice. This doesn’t mean that the second unit can’t get it done because they do create chances and chip in on the scoreboard every once in a while.
It really doesn’t matter which unit is on the ice because the puck and player movement on the man advantage is a work of art. When watching the Lightning power play, one rarely sees a player standing still and if someone is then they are surveying the lay of the land before deciding what to do with the puck or waiting for a play to develop. The quick, crisp passes make it hard for the opposition to get setup or to get into shooting and passing lanes. The Lightning will use the quick, cross ice pass to get a goalie moving from post-to-post and the goalie usually doesn’t get there in time to stop the puck from going into the net.
When players are on the move, other players cover up so they don’t give up too many shorthanded goals. The team will support each other to outnumber the opposition and win the puck battles. They often have traffic in front of the goalie for rebound chances. The quick puck movement makes it hard for a defender because they think the shooter is covered but the next thing they know the puck is in the back of the net.
The special teams are going to be a big part of the Lightning’s success down the stretch especially the penalty kill. The better the penalty kill is heading down the stretch, the better the Lightning’s chances to make a deep run in the postseason.