RECORDS: Hawks 27-28-8 Lightning 40-18-5
PUCK DROP: 6pm
TV: NBCSN Chicago
POINT AT THE SIGN: Raw Charge
I keep thinking it can’t get worse for the Hawks, or really us, and yet somehow it does. It’s certainly bad enough to go have to play the team you used to laugh at that’s now a league standard right after the trade deadline where your management made it clear they’re not much beyond cats pawing at a laser pointer. But then to have to follow that up with the team who’s been the clearest illustration of what you’ve become from what you were…well, how much more can you take? Oh right, after this they’ll have to face their former coach with the highest scoring team in the league.
We chose this.
The last three times the Hawks have faced the Lightning it’s been something of a definitive statement on their status. And if I cant throw in a Tin Cup quote (god I’m truly lost), “And the definition was shit.” Remember it was five years ago they were contesting the Final. Last year, the Lightning simply embarrassed the Hawks twice, including that 30-shot period at the UC. This year, while the score was closer, you never got the impression that the Bolts were even sweating as they calmly skated away in the 3rd period. That’s where they went after ’15, and this is where the Hawks are. And that’s back early in the season when the Lightning were fighting it.
They’re not fighting it anymore. Put it this way, since that late November dance around the maypole at the United Center, Tampa has gone 30-11-3. 63 points of the 88 on offer, which is a 117-point pace over a full season. It’s landed them second in the NHL overall, with the misfortune of the best team in the NHL being in their own division. But wouldn’t you know it, the Bs and Bolts play twice next week in something of a division decider (the Lightning probably have to take both in regulation though).
How did the Lightning turn around after an iffy opening two months? Same thing they always do. Get scoring from everywhere (six guys with 15+ goals and Johnson with 13) while NIkita Kucherov leads the way. Get great goaltending (Vasilevskiy ran a .948 in January and has been .920 since Dec. 1st). And dominate possession (fourth in both Corsi and xG% over the whole season, and second in both since Dec. 1st).
While the Lightning have a tremendous amount of firepower, it’s their defensive game that’s really the backbone of this as they’re third in both the amount of attempts they give up and their expected goals against. Their speed up and down the lineup allows them to choke space whenever they don’t have the puck, which isn’t all that much.
Of course, nothing really matters about the Lightning until April, when they’ll have a couple gremlins to work out of their heads. Last year’s first round disaster probably isn’t much more than an anomaly considering this is a team that has made three trips to the conference final at least in the past five years. It’s Vasilevskiy who will have to answer the biggest questions, as he spit up big time against Columbus and wasn’t terribly good against the Capitals the year before in the East Final. But again, this roster and this system they seem poised to do big things in the spring. You get the feeling if they can negotiate the first round boogeyman, which could end up tricky given the arsenal of Toronto or Florida or even Carolina, there might not be any stopping them.
As for the Hawks, you wonder if this isn’t about damage control. They saw their front office (rightly) declare their season over on Monday, and then while showing more gumption than you might have thought, got kicked in the nuts by the worst possible people anyway. You wouldn’t blame them if they just didn’t have it in them to chase the Bolts all over the ice tonight. Still, there’s professional pride at stake and bigger roles in the future to claim. Corey Crawford gets the start.
It’s hard to believe a team led by this group will just quit on the season, but they’re up against it tonight for sure. This is our lot in life now.