Hockey

Game #22 – Lightning vs. Hawks Preview: First World Problems

vs.

RECORDS: Lightning 9-7-2   Hawks 9-8-4

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

THE GUYS WHO DON’T LOOK LIKE XQUISITE: Raw Charge

It may sound strange to say the Hawks have more points than the Lightning, but that’s the case as the two ’15 Finalists get together again on West Madison. But of course, as we know here, that doesn’t mean the Hawks are better off than the Bolts. The Hawks collected their 22 points in the Cirque de Stupid that is the Central Division and Western Conference as a whole, whereas the Lightning are trying to fight through the gauntlet of the Atlantic. And one of these teams did put up 128 points last year, while the other missed the lowest bar for the playoffs in years by a good distance. And not that much has changed.

That’s not to say everything is rosy in Tampa. They’re sitting just three points above the Eastern cellar, though only two points out of the last playoff spot. While watching the Lightning, or trying to measure them by various metrics, it’s kind of clear that there’s still a malaise from last spring hanging over and in this team. Nothing they do in the regular season is going to matter to anyone, but sadly with the division they’re in they can’t play the whole regular season like it doesn’t matter. Which is kind of what they’ve been doing. Other than their power play, which has reached that “self aware” level, everything else is just meh. Right in the middle of the league.

The Lightning still score, as their overall goals-per-game and even-strength goals per game are in the top five. With the king of marksmen like Kucherov and Stamkos and Point and others, they don’t need to dominate possession to get the scoring they need. Which is good, because they aren’t. Their possession and expected goals numbers re firmly middle of the pack. Again, they can get away with that given the talent for long stretches, but it’s not ideal long-term.

Especially as they may not get the PDO balance at the other end right now. When picking through the rubble of last season’s meltdown in the first round, it was hard not to start with Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s .856 SV%. Anyone can have a bad four games of course, but any big save from Vas in at least Games 1 or 2 could have pivoted that series. The Bolts never got one. That hangover seems to have carried over to this season, where he’s carrying a .906. The Hawks will get the backup tonight, as Curtis McElhinney will take the start.

And that’s probably the biggest factor for the Bolts to get back on track, because they don’t give up a ton of great chances. They’re not among the league’s best, but comfortably in the top half. If Vas can get back to .915 or better, everything should be fine in Tampa.

It also might not hurt the Lightning that they’ve only played seven home games so far, and after this one tonight 14 of their next 17 will be in Tampa. You wouldn’t be shocked by a charge up the standings before New Year’s.

To the Hawks, who could or could not be with Andrew Shaw tonight. He didn’t practice yesterday so they’re going to see how he shows up tonight. If he doesn’t go, the Hawks will dress all seven d-men as they don’t have an extra forward at the moment with Drake Caggiula in a dark room somewhere (my whole life is a dark room…). Every time in the past the Hawks have tried the 7-D look it has gone horribly, and everyone bitches to high heaven about it after. I still think it should be something they try more often and with Boqvist involved, if only to shelter him and Seabrook better. It also provides extra shifts here and there for Kane, Toews, Saad, Dach, DeBrincat, which is a good thing. But what do I know? I’m just a drunk in the rain. Corey Crawford will be your starter.

The Hawks got embarrassed twice by the Lightning last year, though no scoreline truly reflects it. This was the opponent that put up 30 shots in a period on them at the United Center last time around. Quite simply, the Hawks aren’t built to deal with this kind of skill and speed. And really, neither of those things have changed.

The difference, albeit small, between what the Hawks saw on Tuesday and what they’ll get tonight is the Lightning defense isn’t as consistently mobile as Carolina’s. Sure, Hedman and Kirk ShattenKevin are, and Sergachev and Cernak are too. But Sergachev can get wayward when under pressure, and whether it’s Schenn or Rutta joining him that can be exploited. So can Ryan McDonagh on the second pairing. Whereas the Hawks couldn’t get behind Carolina’s last line, they can on this one.

Which means some other d-men besides Connor Murphy have to get the puck out of the zone as quickly as possible to get the defense to back up, which in turn will give everyone more room to breathe. As we saw last year, when the Hawks try their 17-pass breakout, the Lightning’s plus-plus speed at forward and on the forecheck swallows them whole and spits them back out inside out. There just isn’t time for that, at least not until you back them up by proving you can and will stretch the ice.

It’s a rough part of the schedule, as the Hawks again get one of the better teams in the league, whatever the standings say, before two with the hottest team in the league and then two with maybe the best team in the division. But if you want to go somewhere, you can’t always take the path of least resistance.

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