Critical Time for the Lightning

A team in the NHL that loses as many games as they win is usually not a playoff team. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, before their Thursday night game against the Florida Panthers, they have won 22 games and lost 22. This record doesn’t indicate in the least that they are burning up the league with their play.

As they prepare to play the Panthers in the last game before the All-Star break, the Lightning are one of six teams in the Eastern Conference with the least amount of points. To their benefit, the parity in the NHL has the Lightning only four points behind the last wild card playoff spot.

Harbinger of Things to Come?

The win over the Chicago Blackhawks this week can serve as a building block. The problem is that a lot of lackluster and mediocre play has dug a good-sized hole. It will take more than a few building block victories for the Lightning to get back in the playoff hunt.

If anyone thinks there isn’t concern from the coaching staff, during the current road trip the team played Ben Bishop in back-to-back games. They have the goalie of the future in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who started nine consecutive games while Bishop was recovering from a lower-body injury. Yet there was Big Ben back in net earlier than expected from the injury and starting three of four games including the back-to-back set.

Perhaps the concern has grown into outright worry as injuries continue to dog this team. Out go Ryan Callahan, Brayden Point and Jason Garrison and in come, Gabriel Dumont, Michel Bournival and Jake Dotchin. You really can’t tell the players on the Lightning without a scorecard unless you’ve been paying close attention to the Syracuse Crunch.

To their credit, Dumont and Bournival have lined up with Cedric Paquette to create Tampa’s version of the French Connection line. Prior to the Chicago game, this line had been the only line that seems to play with the proper level of urgency.

Imagine the frequent flyer miles the team is accumulating with the call-ups and subsequent send-downs to Syracuse. Some players now in Syracuse already did their time with the Lightning in roles that more recent but different call-ups are currently handling. Clearly, the coaching staff and management are utilizing their AHL team’s roster to play matchups against the scheduled NHL opponents.

What, Us Worry?

If it wasn’t time to fret about the playoffs, there would not be the urgency and frankly, desperation evident in the Chicago game. It worked. The comeback win had to feel good. How much juice the team keeps from this game will go a long way towards determining its postseason chances. What happens as the team heads towards the final stretch of the regular season?

It all depends on the 32 remaining games after the weekend All-Star festivities. It’s hard to believe that one of the preseason favorites in the NHL to contend for the Stanley Cup could very well not make the playoffs. It truly depends on which team plays most of those 32 games. Which team is going to show?

Will it be the team that looked horrible last Saturday against the Arizona Coyotes, when they lost 5 – 3? That game wasn’t even that close. Arizona is fending off the Colorado Avalanche for the title of worst in the NHL this year. Yet the ‘Yotes took it to Tampa. They dominated the Lightning and had a 5 – 1 lead after two periods.

Or will it be the team that beat the Blackhawks at the Madhouse on Madison? The gutty performance stands out as one of the Lightning’s best this season. Since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Chicago had a record of 78-0-5 in home games on the outcome of this road trip. It shouldn’t have come to this but with a little less than half the season remaining, this is where the Lightning find themselves.

Can the Tampa Bay Lightning Survive?

As noted earlier, the Lightning are four points behind the final playoff spot. That by itself does not sound so daunting a task but there are extenuating circumstances. To get that final spot, they would have to leapfrog over six teams. Five of those teams have at least one game in hand on the Lightning.

It will come down to which team we are going to see. It is not pessimistic to say that the playoffs begin now for Tampa. They beat Chicago because they were embarrassed by Arizona. They beat the Blackhawks because despite falling behind in that game 1-0 and then 2-1, they played with enough desperate abandon to beat one of the top teams in the league.

Victor Hedman
Tampa Bay Lightning All-Star Victor Hedman (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The playoffs may be a stretch. Assuming they need at least 90 points, they need to earn 1.3 points per game. That equates to winning three games out of five and taking another one into OT.

There is a host of players that needs to step up – both goalies included. That also includes the defense as a whole with the exception of All-Star Victor Hedman. The players recently departed from Syracuse need to play gangbusters. Underperforming players need to get right. It sounds so simple but it will take a complete and total team effort.

Gargantuan Task

It is feasible. It would, however, take a Herculean undertaking. They would almost certainly need help from a lot of other teams to make this happen. The season for the Lightning has come down to this: It is truly a one-game season. One game at a time 32 times. They cannot afford to overlook a single opponent. The remaining 32 games are all must-wins.

They aren’t going to win every single game but need to play with that mentality. They need to know that they must put forth the type of performance that has been sorely missing this year or they will simply find themselves on the outside looking into the playoffs.