Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hypothesis Testing

The Tampa Bay Lightning currently rest in first place in the Southeast with, if not a comfortable lead, as least a significant one (five points with a game in hand over Washington). The Lightning, in fact, have the fifth most standings points in the league.

How the Lightning put themselves in this position might look familiar to Caps fans. Let’s put it this way. Tampa Bay will not be publishing how-to videos on defense and goaltending based on their performance to date this season.

But what Tampa Bay has done over 57 games raises a disturbing question for Caps fans. Does the Washington model – that of 2009-2010 – work? Can an offense-centric approach to the game, an attacking style that puts defenses on their heels, realize success? If you look at the Caps of last season and the pace on which the Lightning are performing, both as a team and in individual aspects, you see quite a few similarities:

If anything, the Lightning are not nearly as good offensively as the Caps were last season, and their scoring defense is much worse that was that of the Caps (more than a quarter of a goal per game). Both teams had/have effective power plays, and while the Caps had a more efficient 5-on-5 effort, the Lightning can kill off penalties better than last year’s edition of the Caps. In terms of the relative relationships of offense to defense on these teams, they look rather similar. Offense is the emphasis.

Extending the emphasis on offense to individual results/projections, the Caps were the superior team. More 20-goal scorers, more 30- and 40-goal scorers; more point-getters at the 50-, 75-, and 100-point thresholds.

So, last year the Caps were a better offensive and defensive team than the Lightning project to be this year, but so far in the regular season, they seem to be following similar paths. The Caps had 121 standings points last season, while the Lightning are on a pace for 107 – just a winning streak (such as the Caps’ 14-gamer last season) away from being in the points ballpark.

As any Caps fan knows, the regular season and the post season are entirely different species of hockey. The post season is littered with Presidents Trophy winners that couldn’t get out of their own way in the first or second round. The 2009-2010 Caps count themselves among those teams. But what if Tampa Bay finds success this spring where the Caps failed last year? Would it be a validation of an approach that the Caps largely abandoned in an effort to play “the right way” – tighter on defense, less given to unleashed fury on offense?

The Lightning have shown a marginal improvement in goals allowed, having given up 2.83 goals/game in 18 games since the start of the new calendar year. Still, this is a quite high number, and the Lightning have been terribly inconsistent in their application of defense and goaltending. Tampa Bay has four shutouts in its last 18 games (two of them over the Caps) and has allowed a single goal in four other games. On the other hand, Tampa Bay has allowed five or more goals six times in 18 games. This does not look like the consistency a successful team would need in the post season.

Tampa Bay’s profile as primarily an offensive team will draw comparisons to what the Caps did last season. Will they have the defensive discipline and the goaltending talent to go deep in the playoffs? For fans of Dwayne Roloson (who did have a fine postseason when Edmonton went to the Cup final in 2006 -- 12-5, 2.33, .927), he has those four shutouts for Tampa Bay in the last 18 games. But he also has allowed four or more goals in five of his 14 appearances with the Lightning.

Tampa Bay's individual numbers will also draw comparisons, the questions being whether a team that depends so much on a small number of players for scoring (Tampa's Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis being the only Lightning likely to top the 75-point mark), even more so than the Caps of last year, with their four 75-point scorers and three 30-plus goal scorers, can stand up to teams with deeper defenses in the playoffs.

It is hard to see Tampa Bay going far in the playoffs this season, any roster moves at the trading deadline notwithstanding. But if they do, Caps fans might be drinking themselves into a stupor all off season wondering whether the shift in philosophy was all that great an idea.

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