The Tampa Bay Lightning is atop the league standings right now, and it’s not even close. Their 72 points in 46 games played before tonight gives them an eight-point cushion on the next highest team (the Calgary Flames, that have 64 points in 47 games played). Their +56 goal differential leads the next best by 16.
For all talks about how starting goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was having a statistically average season, the fact is that Tampa has depth at both forward and defense and a system that they’ve all bought into that covers that slight blemish. All in all, the Lightning have one of the most complete teams in the NHL.
That’s probably why most Dallas Stars fans expected them to come in and crush the home team in front of their fans tonight.
After all, Dallas is shallow at forward – they’re one of the lowest scoring teams in the league. They don’t play with pace and their puck possession leaves a lot to be desired so far this season. Their defense has been pretty good to date, even with all of the injuries that tried to test the team’s depth on the blueline. The goaltending has actually been one of their strongest assets, with Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin combining for one of the best goals against averages in the league. So it all aligns with getting completely shelled at home.
Instead, Dallas played one of their better games in a while tonight. Yes, they took a 2-0 loss on home ice, and it’s frustrating to have their losing streak advance to three in a row, but within the 60 minutes tonight, there was a lot to like. The transition game was much better than Dallas has had for much of the season (they actually skated through the middle of the ice instead of turning the puck over in the neutral zone seemingly every time). They won puck battles and forced turnovers. They had some looks but struggled to generate second chances against a very good offensive team. For the most part, they limited the chances against.
Of course you’d like to see the result reflect the effort. But at least this was a game that never felt like they were well and truly out of it – unlike the last two we’ve watched.
While Saturday night’s game featured maybe the worst start of the season, tonight’s was the exact opposite. That was likely the fastest we’ve seen Dallas skate to start a game, and they didn’t really seem to let up much all night. They played Tampa with speed, and the Lightning appeared to be taken a little by surprise at the pace at which Dallas started the attack.
Though the teams were nearly even in every respect in the first period – 50/50 on faceoffs, even in shots on goal, nearly even in quality scoring chances (10-8 edge Dallas, by Owen Newkirk’s unofficial count) – the Lightning showed why they are elite by pouncing on one of the only defensive gaffes made by the Stars in the first period.
Julius Honka got caught puck watching, as Alexander Radulov had moved to converge on the puck carrier and Taylor Fedun was right behind Steven Stamkos. Instead of cutting off the pass option, Honka skated towards the puck carrier, and left Ondrej Palat wide open to tip in redirected Stamkos pass for the opening goal.
That’s what good teams are going to do.
The middle frame was a strong one for Dallas, in that they built a 13-2 shots on goal advantage. They spent most of the time in the Tampa end, thanks to a wide variety of power play opportunities.
What had once been hot for Dallas no longer is, as the Stars managed to not score on every single one of them, including a four minute long man advantage to kick off the penalty box parade courtesy of a holding by Victor Hedman, compounded by an unsportsmanlike penalty for what he said to a ref.
It’s not that they didn’t have some looks. They did. It’s just that Vasilevskiy showed that he’s still not far removed from winning a Vezina Trophy last season as the league’s best goaltender. He took several pucks to the chest protector that appeared like they were shot with such force that they’d squeeze through, but they never did for him. He got the whistles and held onto them long enough as he started to keep over to keep anything from getting past him.
The other thing that Tampa did really well was they put a lot of sticks and bodies in lanes. Anytime the puck got near the goaltender there were three white jerseys in front to ensure that rebounds could be kicked away or pucks just couldn’t get through at all.
I told you Tampa was elite, and they absolutely showed it stymying the Stars offensive chances and killing off those penalties. Though the Stars were out-chancing the Lightning 18-11 by the end of the second period, the Lightning had made their first goal stand up.
The penalties continued to be drawn by Dallas in the third. In fact, this might have been one of the nights were Dallas had their most power play advantages this season (or close to it). The speed of the team obviously gave Tampa some kind of trouble, and if the Stars can play like that consistently they’re going to be in a position to win.
Unfortunately, they’ll need to trust that this is the case, as they did not get the result tonight to show for it.
Dallas couldn’t capitalize on any of the other power plays they got in the third period, and they had a few more to tack onto their second period power play opportunities. Special teams was definitely the name of this game, and Dallas didn’t win in that column. “Our power play was shit tonight and that was the difference,” said captain Jamie Benn after the loss.
For the first time in a while, this loss feels like the kind where the opponent beat them instead of the Stars finding ways to beat themselves.