Why scoring is Tampa's surprising hurdle to a Stanley Cup three-peat

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Corey Perry discusses the importance of taking Igor Shesterkin's eyes away, says "guys are going to have to do the job to make it hard on him," also touches on why it took this team 3 games to find their groove.

We have a hard time adapting our world view as the things we thought we knew change.

Maybe you’ve got a friend who was short all through high school who grew suddenly and rapidly as a teen, and now it’s weird to accept that they’re actually your tall friend. I bring this up because it’s tough to think of the Tampa Bay Lightning as a team that might struggle offensively at times, but that’s their current reality.

Years ago, when the Bolts were just about the best regular season hockey team going, my lord, could they score. They were high-flying flash-and-dash en route to an NHL record 126 points and… a first-round exit versus Columbus. The Bolts evolved, matured, and eventually found post-season success.

Some of their new defensive focus slowed down their offensive results, but it always felt like the goals were in their bag if they ever needed to pull them out to score at a big moment. What’s more dangerous than a team that has offensive firepower when they need it, but chooses to play smart all game long and only opens it when they have to? They still felt like an offensive superpower when the numbers didn’t bear that out.

The problem for Tampa now? Their defensive results have generally been great, their goaltending is elite, but I’m not 100 per cent convinced they’re still sitting on that same extra gear.

It’s not that they haven’t scored, and of course they’ve scored enough to push deep into yet another playoff year. Their 3.07 goals per game are impressive, but only eighth among playoff teams, and last among the remaining ones. If you’ve been paying attention, everyone is scoring these days, and so outscoring old standards isn’t great if you’re losing ground to the teams you’re playing. In Game 3 Tampa scored three times, but two of those were on the power play -- also great -- but a tough plan to lean on when you can’t trade power plays with an opposition that’s clipping along with one of the best power plays in post-season history (among teams who’ve had at least 40 power plays the Rangers' 31.4 per cent is one of the best ever).

I mention it’s hard to change our perception of something off the top because look at the reality for the Lightning when it’s come to scoring at 5-on-5 over their run. The past two years they’ve hardly been among the league’s best at scoring. Look at their league-wide rank:

Lighting regular season 5-on-5 scoring rates.

(Keep in mind goals everywhere have been steadily ticking up over this time.)

Of course, ninth in 5-on-5 scoring isn’t bad by any stretch – it’s significantly better than the Rangers, who were in the league’s bottom third – only things have shifted from the realities of the regular season totals.

For one, the Rangers got much, much better in this regard after the trade deadline.

For another, the Lightning are down to 1.5 goals per game at 5-on-5 in the playoffs, which is a pretty drastic drop off and an obvious red flag.

The loss of Brayden Point has been debilitating for their group. When they won the Stanley Cup in 2019-20, Point led Tampa’s offence with 33 points in 23 games, but more importantly he put up a MASSIVE 26 even strength points in those games. The next year his point totals weren’t as gaudy, but he was still third on the team in even strength points – in sum, they’ve relied on this guy.

It’s not just the raw totals, though, as he’s the type of player who’s exemplified what the Bolts have come to be about. He prioritizes playing the right way and work ethic, and when they’ve needed a big play most – like say, in Game 6 of Round 1 with his team a single shot against from elimination in overtime – Point is the guy who finds a way for them.

Over the regular season, the Lightning got their usual elite performances from the usual guys. At 5-on-5, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov were top notch, registering about .85 points per game at even strength each. The next tier of scorers for Tampa was Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, and of course, Point. From that tier in this post-season they’ve got good play from Palat (with a huge goal in Game 3, and nine even strength points in 14 games), zero goals and two even strength points from Killorn (a big issue), and Point is out. Their depth scoring feels like it’s dried up with no obvious way to resuscitate it (though shifting Stamkos to centre has seemed a jumpstart so far).

If you go over the Bolts' forward lines, you realize there’s just not many places for the offence to come from. They had only been dressing 11 up front prior to Game 3, and the bottom group includes guys not meant to score (Pat Maroon and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare), Brandon Hagel has scored once all playoffs, Anthony Cirelli the same, and so you run out of “where’s the next goal going to come from” names a little quicker than you’d think right now. I’m sure Julien BriseBois is thanking his lucky stars for Nick Paul, who only has seven points (six at 5-on-5) in 14 games, given that extra little bit has come at critical times.

The good news for the Bolts is their offence has deserved more than it’s gotten as of late. In the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Bolts didn’t generate much at all, averaging an expected goals for total of 1.85 per game. Against Florida, they did a bit better, getting it up to 2.07 xGF per game, but they won on the backs of defence and goaltending. Against the Rangers, they’ve generated a much more impressive 3.02 xGF per game, but now … they’re facing Igor Shesterkin, the likely Vezina Trophy winner. Tampa is going to need to generate at least three expected goals at even strength per game to beat him as many times as they were beating Sergei Bobrovsky or Jack Campbell.

Stamkos has scored a couple, but his 5-on-5 point generation is down from the regular season, and there’s more for Kucherov too, whose performance has been a roller coaster from Games 1 through 3.

In the end, all the things that get you through tough playoff moments will be there for the Lightning. They’ve perfected the right mix of patience and risk, commitment and energy, and all those other intangibles that they seem to have in spades. In both the first and second round they showed a single game of offensive burst (Game 4 in Round 1, Game 3 in Round 2), a solar flare from a collective star that in years past always shone bright. I think we’ll see at least one more of those.

But with goals per game sky high in this post-season, the pressure is going to be on them to score as much as their opposition over and again, and that opposing goaltender is pretty darn good. Theirs is too, of course. But in past years, having Vasilevskiy felt like more than enough to ensure their way through certain opponents.

Now, facing a guy who looks Vasilevskiy's equal in the other crease, the weight of pressure shifts now to their goal scoring, as they try to find the extra gear they once had.

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