Today’s NHL Predictions features a cross-conference rematch from a previous date on the calendar. On Saturday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning (14-13-5) fell to the Calgary Flames by a score of 4-2. After trailing by three goals, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos found the back of the net to cut the lead to one. Unfortunately, the surge was not enough to complete the comeback.
On the other side of this matchup, the St. Louis Blues (15-14-1) have been mediocre throughout the season. The Blues are on a two-game win streak after a four-game losing streak. St. Louis has been inconsistent outside of their superstar forward, Robert Thomas. He has 32 points in 30 games this season, which ranks tied for 23rd in the league scoring race.
Tampa Bay returns home from their West Coast road trip, where they snagged four out of eight possible points in the standings. The Lightning are in serious need of defensive help. With the trade deadline a few months away, we will list trade targets to help the Lightning reach the playoffs. Until then, here are the keys to victory for the Lightning in this matchup.
NHL Predictions: Tampa Bay vs St. Louis
Three Keys to Victory for Tampa Bay
Communication in the Defensive Zone
A glaring issue from the loss to the Flames was communication in the defensive zone for the Lightning. Under their defensive coach, Jeff Blashill, the Lightning switched their defensive zone structure to a “box plus one” this year. The Lightning used to defend “man on man” before the switch. The “box plus one” strategy is a zone defence instead of covering a single player. The structure forms a box between the dots that do not allow any shot opportunities in the middle of the ice. Pictured below is the strategy on paper for visual purposes.
The “box plus one” is meant to give up the perimeter in the offensive zone. Opponents typically counter this defensive zone strategy with lane switches and quick puck movement. When the offense switches lanes, the defensive team must communicate whether to stay in their zone or rotate spots. It is easy to tell the Lightning struggle with communication when Stamkos points in a panic for Brandon Hagel to cover down low right before the Flames’ third goal on Saturday (Hagel is not to blame for the goal, just an indicator of hesitation in the defensive zone).
We will show an image of the defensive breakdown right before the third goal on Saturday. The Lightning have both defencemen cover one Flames forward in front of the net. Number 17 on the Flames, Yegor Sharangovich, is the future goal-scorer in this image. All four Lightning players in the frame are “puck watching” or have their focus only on the puck. Sharangovich is left unmarked and will eventually hammer a one-timer down the slot for the goal. The Lightning must patch up their defensive scheme or acquire players who fit their identity.
Bottom-Six Play Driving
While the Lightning offence has found success this season, Nikita Kucherov has carried a heavy workload of the point-scoring share on the team. Outside their top players, the Lightning receives little help from their bottom-six forwards on offence. The current fourth line has combined for only six goals on the season. On the other hand, the Vancouver Canucks have four goals from their fourth line in the past seven games. The Lightning must target bottom-six play-driving forwards to establish themselves as a contender in the playoffs. Kucherov can not score every goal for this hockey club.
Hedman and Sergachev Defensive Play
Tampa Bay’s defensive issues can also be associated with the poor effort from their top two defencemen on the back half of the ice. Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev have performed below expectations on the defensive side of the puck. Both players are constantly out of position and allow goals against at a league-worst rate at 5v5.
Sergachev ranks 18th worst in goals against per hour amongst defencemen at 5v5 this season (3.35 GA/60). Furthermore, Hedman ranks 49th worst in goals against per hour amongst defencemen at 5v5 (2.88 GA/60). An elite-caliber defender in the modern NHL must be responsible defensively while providing all-star offensive production. The two Lightning blue-liners constantly sacrifice offence for defence, and this play style has not translated to team success.
This cross-conference matchup will likely feature a lot of goals, considering both teams’ defensive struggles. The Blues beat the Lightning by a score of 5-0 last time these two faced off. The Lighting was without Kucherov, and the team looked flat on both sides of the puck. With Kucherov back in the lineup, we expect a different story this time. Tampa Bay has been excellent on home ice this season, so we project them to grab two points.
Prediction: Tampa Bay wins 5-3
On-Ice Statistics via Natural Stat Trickc
Main photo by: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports