Hockey

 VS

 

Records: Hawks 14-11-5 (33) Lightning 20-6-2 (42)

Puck Drops: Thursday 6:00 / Saturday 3:00

TV/Radio: NBCSN and WGN 720

Tom Brady’s Minions: Raw Charge

 

Hoo boy, here we go again.

The last time these teams met up over a week ago, things went fairly positively for the Hawks with them going 1-1-1 in the 3 game series. The last game on the 7th, however, saw the Hawks cough up a 3 goal lead en route to losing 6-3. Since the middle of February, coughing up leads has become a shitty new trend for them as they once again jumped out to a 3-1 lead against the Panthers last game and proceeded to implode defensively again en route to yet another 6-3 loss. As Summer pointed out in her recap, the Hawks since the beginning of February have been unable to hold multi-goal leads in 7 of 9 games where they’ve had them. That, as the kids like to say, is “not good.”

The clown show that March has been is unlikely to get any better over the next week, as not a whole lot has changed with the Lightning since the Hawks last faced them. They dropped a game each against the dregs of the division in the Red Wings and Predators. The common thread in both those losses is that Andrei Vasilevskiy was not in the cage for either of them. In fact, Vasilevskiy hasn’t lost a game in almost a month, as his last L came on February 20th against the Canes. His backup, however, has not fared nearly as well. Curtis McElhinney has managed to go 2-3 in the same time frame, averaging more than 1.5 more goals against than Vasilevskiy does, with a considerably worse save percentage.

Despite the difference in netminder quality, Tampa head coach and professional hedonist John Cooper continues to split playing time between the two at about a 60-40% rate. Mostly because Cooper is smart enough to know that the talent level on his squad is more than enough to make up for any deficiencies in net, and it’s far more important to keep Vasilevskiy rested and healthy as they inevitably roll towards the playoffs.

Offensively, the Lightning don’t have many weak spots up and down their lineup, either from the forwards or their defensive corps. As McClure mentioned in his preview recently, the Bolts are tops in the league in goal differential which when paired with a nails penalty kill and a top 3rd power play usually results in some easy wins. Some of those stats have dipped a bit in recent weeks, but there’s no reason to think that it’s anything more than a blip on the radar as they haven’t lost anyone to injury, and Vasilevskiy is still the bees knees.

As for our Men of the Four Feathers, March has gone pretty much the way we assumed it would points-wise. I just didn’t think it would come with such spectacular meltdowns. A huge issue with the Hawks being unable to hold leads has been the fact that the special teams well has completely dried up. If you take away the 2 power play goals scored in the win at Dallas, the Hawks have gone 0 for 13 on the man advantage and managed to give up two shorthanded goals. On the other side of that coin is the penalty kill has been completely exposed in March. Much of that is the fact that they’re playing teams that have competent power plays, but the stupid penalties like the one Duncan Keith took in the last game against Florida are particularly back breaking.

Another major concern for the Hawks is Kevin Lankinen has come crashing back to earth in net. Over his last 5 starts he’s given up an average of almost 4 goals per game (19 total), and his save percentage over those games is below .900. Rebound control has become an issue, especially since the Hawks D is unwilling or unable to clear bodies away in front of him. Malcom Subban hasn’t fared any better, and with these next stretch of games becoming uber critical points-wise I wouldn’t expect to see him until the Preds series.

Offensively, the Hawks continue to get waxed night in and night out with possession metrics. They haven’t won the CORSI battle since their overtime win against the Lightning, and continue to average around a 42% share each game. When Lankinen and the power play were humming along in February and early March, the Hawks were able to paper over their inability to score at even strength. Now, however, with all of their flaws laid bare it’s becoming apparent that they’re just a tier below the Canes, Bolts and Panthers.

The majority of the Hawks even strength scoring has come on odd man rushes and not as the result of extensive offensive zone time. More often than not, their forays into the opposing team’s zone ends up being a one and done affair. Until the Hawks are able to set up shop in the opponent’s end for extended periods of time, they’re not going to be able to rack up any offense unless they start shooting at a 50% clip.

While this all seems very grim for the Hawks (and it pretty much is), they’ve shown that they can hang with teams like Tampa before. The 1st period in their last game against them where they jumped out to a 3-1 lead is proof that when things are clicking for the power play, the Hawks can play with anyone. We’ve seen flashes of what some of these kids can do, now it just needs to become more consistent. You have to figure Cooper will probably give McElhinney a start, so the Hawks pretty much have to at least get to OT in that one. Points have been hard to come by this month, and with the Preds being the only shitty team they’ll face the rest of March they absolutely have to secure every one possible. Get it done.

 

Let’s Go Hawks

Hockey

Whoops.

That ended up being the theme for the Bolts last season. They took a historically good season and a historically good individual season from Nikita Kucherov and dumped in straight into the toilet like tainted Taco Bell in four games. In some ways, it makes them more unique than if they’d just won the Cup. But that will be of little solace to them and their fans. Which makes this season something of a revenge tour. Most likely, they’ll dial back in the regular season a touch, which should be still more than good enough to win this division. And no judgements can be made until the postseason starts. But the thing with the Lightning is they don’t have some record of being playoff chokers. They’ve been to the conference final twice, a Final once all in the last four seasons. Perhaps they should have beaten the Caps in that conference final, with a Game 7 at home, but it was hardly the magnitude of an upset that last year was. They may be running out of chances.

2018-2019

62-16-4  128 points (1st in Metro, lost in 1st round)

3.89 GF/G (1st)  2.80 GA/G (7th)  +72 GD

51.5 CF% (9th)  52.6 xGF% (8th)

29.2 PP% (1st)  85.0 PK% (1st)

Goalies: A microcosm of the entire team, no opinions are going to be formed about Andrei Vasilevskiy in the regular season. We know he’s almost certainly going to put up Vezina-numbers then. He’s been over .920 in both of his seasons as starter, and .925 at evens. Unless something truly broke in the playoffs, the Lightning have no questions here.

But when April rolls around, so do all those questions. Vas-manian Devil here was simply awful in the first round, putting up an .856 over four games against Columbus. No, he didn’t have a lot of help, but when the Lightning needed a save, he didn’t provide one. This followed him somewhat falling apart in that Game 7 the previous season, so we know there are gremlins jumping around his skull in the spring. And that label dogs you until you prove it untrue. Vas is going to have to wait six months to make things right.

He’ll be backed up by Curtis McElhinney, who is about as solid in that role as you can ask. He had a brief hot streak with the Canes last year before ceding to Peter Mrazek, and was solid as a backup in Toronto the previous two seasons to the point where the unwashed rabble amongst Leafs fans (read: all of them) were pining for him last season. The Lightning won’t want to turn things over to him for too long a stretch if something happens to Vasilevskiy, but he certainly can get them out of 20-25 games.

Defense: What might be most amazing about the Lightning’s season last year is that this defense isn’t all that impressive. And it’s still not. Victor Hedman is one of the best around and certainly cures a lot of ills. But Anton Stralman started to age last year, and they replaced him this time around with a couple fliers in Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn. You could see where in heavily sheltered shift, and the Bolts can do that for him, Kirk ShattenKevin could be a find. Mikhail Sergachev had a rough go in the playoffs, but still has all the promise in the world and should get second-pairing time now.

Erik Cernak‘s play landed Slater Koekkoek here, so you can thank him for that. But Braydon Coburn is still here for reasons no one can explain. Ryan McDonagh is past it too, though Hedman covers up for a lot of that. You know Rutta and Schenn suck deep pond scum. When they were put under heavy attack last year by the Jackets, you saw what happened. They’ll need a renaissance from Shattenkirk and real steps forward from Sergachev and Cernak. If they don’t get those, they’ll have to go looking.

Forwards: Then again, it might not matter thanks to this group. They still need to cram in Brayden Point to their cap situation, as he remains unsigned. Until he is, they’ll just have to find a way to make do with Steven Stamkos, Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson (high atop our wanted list for the Hawks), Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph. How will they ever manage?

The Bolts lit up the scoreboard on the power play and at evens, and with Stamkos and Kucherov on opposite wings there’s no reason the PP won’t go pinball noises again. There’s just little answer for them, especially with Hedman up top. It’s hard to match this depth, whenever Point gets back into the fold. They could ice just the forwards and Vasilevskiy and probably still be a playoff team. Hell, they should try a 4F-1D lineup at all times just to see what happens.

Predictions: If you got odds on this team to win the Cup, you should take them. I don’t think last season is anything other than a strange anomaly, and the only thing that could derail them again before the conference final is if Vasilevskiy truly does see ghosts in the postseason. Yeah, the defense is not special, but it’s got three puck-movers that it needs and all it really has to do is get the puck up to the forwards and say, “Go do shit.” And this forward group is still otherworldly. Is Kucherov going to go for 128 points again? No, probably not. But he doesn’t have to. This team, barring injury or goalies going inside-out, can sleepwalk to 110 points and the Atlantic title again. Any question about them is in the playoffs, and again, this isn’t a team that has a track record of throwing up on itself when it counts. That feels like a one-off. All systems go here.

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