Today’s NHL Predictions features an exciting cross-conference matchup. On Saturday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning (19-17-5) lost to the Boston Bruins by a score of 7-3. The top line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Brandon Hagel were on fire at TD Garden. Kucherov recorded three points, including assists on a multi-goal performance from Point. In addition, Jack Thompson and Emil Martinsen Lilleberg made their NHL debuts on the backend.
On the other side of this matchup, the Los Angeles Kings (20-10-6) have surprised many to start the 2023-24 season. The Kings are one of the most dominant analytical teams in the NHL. The Kings control 57.35% of the expected goals share on-ice (57.35 xGF%), which ranks second in the league this season. Adrian Kempe and Anze Kopitar lead the charge for Los Angeles with 36 points each. Moreover, Cam Talbot has revived his career in the net with an All-Star selection.
Tampa Bay has made it past the halfway mark of the 2023-24 regular season. While their playoff ambitions remain alive, time is beginning to run out. The fourth spot in the Atlantic Division is up for grabs, but other teams have games in hand on the Bolts. Fans must remain patient with the Lightning and remember what this core is capable of. Here are the keys to victory for the Lightning in this matchup.
NHL Predictions: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Los Angeles Kings
Three Keys to Victory for Tampa Bay
Establish the Forecheck
While the Kings are a solid analytical team like the Bruins, they struggle to break out of their defensive zone. Corey Sznjader at All Three Zones backs this claim with additional insight into team statistics, such as breakouts, zone entries, and passes. Under the defensive zone retrievals and exits tab, the Kings fall under the “stuck in the defensive zone” category of the graph. Los Angeles has fewer puck retrievals and more intercepted breakouts per hour than the league average.
As for Tampa Bay, their ability to generate offence from the forecheck and cycle is the highlight of their microstat profile this season. The Lightning rank fifth in forecheck pressures per hour and ninth in forecheck recoveries per hour. In the first 2o seconds of the game against Boston, a heavy forecheck from Hagel and Kucherov led to a goal by Point. Tampa Bay must replicate their puck pursuit against a lower-skilled Los Angeles defence to have a chance to win.
Top Line Continues Stellar Play
One can argue that the Lightning would be a bottom-five team in the league without Kucherov this season. After all, the Russian winger has assisted on roughly 60% of all Lightning goals this season. The top line was the only line on the scoresheet against the Bruins on Saturday night. While defensive help is necessary for the Bolts at the trade deadline, secondary scoring options would also be beneficial to bolster the roster.
While Jon Cooper has experimented with numerous line combinations, Hagel is the best fit alongside Kucherov and Point. In roughly 230 minutes of ice time together, the trio controls 58.7% of the expected goal share on-ice (58.7 xGF%). Out of 106 line combinations with 100 minutes or more together at 5v5, the Lightning top line scores 3.52 expected goals per hour (3.52 xGF/60), which ties for 14th. While the rest of the forward lines propose serious question marks, the top trio is a bright spot for the Bolts.
Force Los Angeles to Dump the Puck
We will return to Corey Sznjader’s workbook again to help identify what the Lightning must do to beat the Kings. The main difference between the Kings this season and last is their rush offence. Last season, the Kings were a heavy forechecking team that rarely carried the puck into the zone. Los Angeles ranks third in rush offence per hour this season.
The Lightning defend the rush aggressively and attempt to force their opponents to dump the puck. While this strategy is effective, Tampa Bay struggles to break out of its zone when retrieving the dump-ins. A strong forecheck is no secret to the Kings, so the Lightning must pick and choose wisely with pinches.
The Lightning and Kings will play the first of two matchups this season. The Lightning are still without Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak on defence due to injury. Once again, the forecheck of Tampa Bay will give them the best odds to defeat a solid opponent in Los Angeles. The Kings are a quick counter-attack team that can play on the rush and forecheck. While their defence is not the most talented, they are structured and play smart defensively. Therefore, the Kings will grab the win on the road against the Lightning.
Prediction: Kings wins 4-3
Main Photo Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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