As we’ve discussed in the past, even with most seasons in sports that have been shaken up, be it shortened preseason or odd schedules and lineups that change daily thanks to COVID protocols, the chalk has remained at the top of the ranking.
It’s really no different in the NHL so far, as the Leafs have risen to the top of the North, the Bruins are in first place in the East, and the Avalanche, Blues, and Knights are at the top of the West, although they all have they had their schedules cut so far with several players testing positive.
And defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning has returned to Gallagher-ing all in the Central.
Last night, the Bolts beat the Panthers, apparently just one of the other two competent teams in the division, 6-1. It was Tampa’s seventh victory in eight games, and the fourth time in those seven victories that they scored five goals or more. Plus, those seven wins have seen them outperform their opponents 33-10. They currently have a goal difference of +24, nine better than anyone in the league (Toronto is second). They have only played 13 games, about two or three less than teams that have had a full schedule. And the catch is that they’re doing all of this without Nikita Kucherov, who will miss the entire regular season after hip surgery and is just a former Hart Trophy winner. His win last night came without Steven Stamkos, who is on the protocol list for the time being (although he believes that it is a false positive).
Last night’s win was anchored by Mathieu Joseph with two points, who is another skilled and agile striker that the Bolts seemingly roll off their own production line every season. Joseph had contributed in part the past two seasons, and can return to that role when he gets out of this current heater of hitting yarn on a third of his shots. Or it could just stand behind the pool of talents the Lightning already have, pulverizing other teams’ third and fourth lines. It is the shape of lightning. They just do these guys.
Tampa’s top starter of the season so far is goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who leads the entire NHL with a .933 save percentage. Vasilevskiy is a former Vezina winner so he hardly came out of nowhere, but he’s also only 26 years old and given the aging curve for goalkeepers, he could be entering his prime. Which is a daunting thought for the rest of the league. Vasilevskiy benefits from playing behind a pretty good defensive team (the Bolts are in the top 10 in attempts against), but he’s also doing the most cleanup job, as his actual save percentage is the highest relative with your expected salvage percentage. , according to Evolving-hockey.com. Vasilevskiy not only makes all the stops he should, he also makes all the ones he shouldn’t.
Elsewhere on the list, this could be Mikhail Sergachev’s standout season. Yet another player on the roster you can’t believe is “only” 22 years old, Sergachev was robbed from Montreal by the never-achievable promise of Jonathan Drouin. Sergachev has been a neat weapon hidden in the lower pairs for Tampa in recent seasons, getting heavily protected at-bats, but this year he appears to be emerging as a real force behind Victor Hedman. He has already accumulated 10 assists and his expected goal percentage is the best on the team among the blue line. And he has done it while dragging the corpse of Luke Schenn as a partner or young Cal Foote. It’s another one that could be scratching the surface.
There are some qualifications to be done in this section. Six of the games have been against Red Wings, who intentionally blow chunks, and Predators, who do so accidentally. The next little stretch might tell us more, as they have one more with the Panthers before spending the next two weeks playing solo against the Stars and Hurricanes (although the Stars haven’t lit the world yet). But Central is full of mayonnaise left in the sun, with the Preds imploding, everyone wanting to get out of Columbus as quickly as possible, and the Stars dealing with injuries to their top center and # 1 goalkeeper. The Lightning will spend most of the time. regular season crying in tomato cans.
The same as it always was … the same as it always was …