End to Lightning's 10-Game Win Streak
All good things must end. On Sunday night, on the second game of a back-to-back and after ten straight wins, the Lightning finally lost—3-1 to the New Jersey Devils. Unsurprisingly, ripping off double-digit wins did wonders for the Lightning’s postseason chances. They rocketed past every team in their division except Boston, and if the season ended today, they would play the Maple Leafs at home.
For a game that the Lightning lost, they played well enough to win. They doubled the Devils in shot attempts and almost doubled them in high-danger chances. They finished with an expected goals of 2.42, dwarfing the Devils’ measly .65.
But New Jersey improved as the game went along. In the first period, the Lightning had 20 shot attempts to the Devils’ six, and they doubled their total in high-danger chances. The Lightning wouldn’t maintain that dominance, however, and while the Nikita Kucherov-Brayden Point-Steven Stamkos line was the Lightning’s best, they failed to register a goal due to Devils goaltender Louis Domingue’s revenge game. Still, in the loss there were a few interesting data points to mull over.
Defensive lapse around the crease
Just because the Lightning controlled play for the majority of the game does not mean they made an unassailable effort. The one facet that the Lightning sputtered in was boxing out around the net, and this will be something to watch. On the Travis Zajac goal, Anthony Cirelli failed to box out Zajac and Zajac deflected the puck right before it reached Curtis McElhinney. Shortly after the Tyler Johnson goal, Blake Coleman deflected a shot that hit the post and the same thing happened. Kevin Shattenkirk didn’t box out Coleman and Coleman nearly deflected the puck in.
For the Devils’ part, they did a nice job of getting in shooting lanes and stifling the Lightning around the crease. The Lightning also punted on good looks from the off-slot, passing to attempt a better shot in the low slot, but the Devils were strong on their sticks and broke up those passes.
Ondrej Palat’s incredible numbers
When you look at some of the advanced stats for the Lightning, at the top of the heap you see Kucherov and Point. But in expected goals percentage and high-danger chances percentage, neither star forward is first. Ondrej Palat is leading the Lightning in both categories. True, those metrics are determined by who is on the ice, so he isn’t necessarily catalyzing all those chances. And yet, his individual expected goals per hour ranks behind only Johnson, Carter Verhaeghe, and Kucherov. His individual performance for high-danger chances per 60 minutes as an individual ranks ahead of Kucherov and Stamkos and only trails Johnson, Point, and Cirelli. Palat is affecting the game overtly and subtly.
Last night, when Palat was paired with Johnson and Cirelli, that line accrued the Lightning’s only goal. Palat had his fingerprints on the sequence. It was Palat’s pass in the neutral zone that initiated a Johnson one-on-one versus P.K. Subban, and it was Palat’s pressure on the forecheck that helped the Lightning force a turnover and score a goal.
What is noteworthy about Palat’s 2019-20 season is how much better his underlying numbers are when compared to last year. This season he is third best among forwards in terms of controlling shot attempts. Last year he was ninth. In 2018-19, Palat was 12th among forwards in expected goals percentage—albeit in high-danger chances percentage he was fourth, so he jumped from fourth to first.
It has become a consensus in certain circles of the sports community that health is a skill, and Palat’s biggest boon so far this season has been staying on the ice. Palat is on pace for 22 goals, which would be one short of his career high from 2013-14. In points, he is on pace to finish just below 50 points. But his points per game is in the same vicinity as it was during the last two seasons. (It is lower than 17-18, but higher than 18-19.) The only difference is that Palat has missed only one game. Palat has been better at helping the Lightning control the puck and generate chances, but the best aspect of this season is that he hasn’t been hampered by injury.
Palat fits nicely into a category of Tier II forwards for the Lightning. Joining Palat in the suite of forwards with moxie are Cirelli, and Alex Killorn. Jon Cooper can add any one of them to a line and watch him have a galvanizing impact on the other two forwards when performance is stalling, especially a line with one or more stars. Palat isn’t smashing career bests like Killorn, but he is a valued contributor.
Point as a facilitator
Point’s speed is his most identifiable characteristic. Complementing his speed is his ability to make quick turns and lose defenders because he can change directions at the snap of a finger. When Point had hip surgery before the season, it was fair to wonder if any of his explosiveness would be lost. His puck-transportation speed has not been at the same level as it was last season, but it is hard to tell how much of this is the result of opponents constantly scheming for Point.
The skating lanes haven’t been there and Point has had turnovers. In open ice, opposing defenders have been able to match his skating. Last night was different; Point looked like the Point of 2018-19. His give-and-go with Kucherov with five minutes left in the third period was incredible. He had at least a half-dozen moments where he looked like he was in an extra gear and the Devils didn’t have an answer. It’s certainly worth monitoring, because if he reclaims that same dynamic playmaking, his assist total will soon spike considerably.