As we’ve commented in the past, even with most seasons across sports being thrown into upheaval, be it shortened preseasons or odd schedules and lineups that change on a daily basis thanks to COVID protocols, the chalk has remained at the top of the standings.
It’s not really any different in the NHL so far, as the Leafs have risen to the top of the North, the Bruins are in first in the East, and the Avalanche, Blues, and Knights are atop the West even though all of then have had their schedules clipped so far with various players testing positive.
And the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning have returned to Gallagher-ing everyone in the Central.
Last night, the Bolts beat the Panthers, seemingly only one of the other two even-competent teams in the division, 6-1. It was Tampa’s seventh win in eight games, and the fourth time in those seven wins they’d scored five goals or more. Moreover, those seven wins have seen them outscore their opponents 33-10. They currently have a +24 goal-difference, nine better than anyone else in the league (Toronto is in second). They’ve only played 13 games, some two or three less than teams that have had a full schedule. And the kicker is that they’re doing all of this without Nikita Kucherov, who will miss the entire regular season after hip surgery and is only a former Hart Trophy winner. Their win last night came without Steven Stamkos, who is on the protocol list for the moment (though he thinks it’s a false positive).
Last night’s win was anchored by Mathieu Joseph with two points, who’s yet another fleet-footed, skilled forward that the Bolts seemingly roll off their own production line every season. Joseph had been a bit-part contributor the past couple seasons, and may return to that role when he gets off this current heater of hitting twine on a third of his shots. Or he might just slot in behind the bevy of talent the Lightning already have, pulverizing other teams’ third and fourth lines. It’s the Lightning way. They just make these guys.
The main headline on Tampa’s season so far is goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s leading the entire NHL with a .933 save-percentage. Vasilevskiy is a former Vezina winner, so he’s hardly come from nowhere, but he’s also just 26 and given the aging curve of goalies, might just be entering his prime. Which is a dispiriting thought for the rest of the league. Vasilevskiy benefits from playing behind a pretty good defensive team — the Bolts rank in the top-10 in attempts against — but he’s also doing the most clean-up work, as his actual save-percentage is the highest relative to his expected save-percentage, according to Evolving-hockey.com. So not only does Vasilevskiy make all the saves he should, but he’s making all the ones he shouldn’t as well.
Elsewhere on the roster, this might be Mikhail Sergachev’s breakout season. Yet another player on the roster where you can’t believe he’s “only” 22, Sergachev was stolen out of Montreal for the never attainable promise of Jonathan Drouin. Sergachev has been a neat weapon tucked away on the bottom pairings for Tampa the past few seasons, getting heavily sheltered shifts, but this year seems to be emerging to be a real force behind Victor Hedman. He’s already racked up 10 assists, and his expected-goals percentage is the best on the team among the blue line. And he’s done that while mostly either dragging around the corpse of Luke Schenn as a partner or young’un Cal Foote. He’s yet another who could just be scratching the surface.
There is some qualifying to be made to this stretch. Six of the games have come against the Red Wings, who intentionally blow chunks, and the Predators, who accidentally do. The next little stretch might tell us more, as they have one more with the Panthers before spending the next two weeks playing only the Stars and Hurricanes (though the Stars haven’t lit the world on fire yet). But the Central is filled with mayonnaise left out in the sun, with the Preds imploding, everyone wanting to leave Columbus as quickly as they can, and the Stars dealing with injuries to their top center and #1 goalie. The Lightning will spend most of the regular season wailing on tomato cans.
Same as it ever was... same as it ever was...