The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the outside looking in for the playoffs this year. However, according to the seemingly ageless Marty St. Louis they were closer to making it this year than their despondent fans may have realized. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times’ Damian Cristodero the 13-year veteran said,
“We’re not that far away…Even this year, it’s five wins…It’s easy to look back and think of five games you should have won.”
Five additional wins would have given the Lightning 10 additional points, increasing their season total from 84 to 94, which would have tied them with the Panthers for the Southeast Division lead. If everything else had held to form they would have won the tie-breaker by virtue of having more regulation wins and thereby nabbed the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
His comments beg the question, “What five games could the Lightning have won?” St. Louis does go on to mention how the road-game heavy early portion of the schedule made it difficult when they couldn’t close out some early games, and the team felt like they “got behind the 8-ball.” However, all throughout the season the Lightning dropped games that they should, or could, have won. Below are five that stand out.
1. October 10, 2011 – 6-5 (Shoot Out) at Washington
In the midst of a season-opening, 5-game road trip the Lightning led by one goal until Jason Chimera scored at the 17:16 mark of the final period. It was the third one-goal lead that the Lightning managed to blow that night.
Washington’s final game-tying goal came on a play that would repeat itself ad nauseam throughout the season. Dominic Moore had possession of the puck in his zone and tried to feather a soft pass along the boards that was easily intercepted by Chimera and ended up in the back of the net.
Another season-long deficiency reared its head in overtime. Despite having two truncated power plays in the extra frame, the Lightning couldn’t put the puck past Thomas Vokoun. Nate Thompson and Dominic Moore would miss their shootout tries while Matt Hendricks and Alex Semin converted theirs.
At the time it seemed like the shootout loss had only cost them one point, however, the extra point would have come in handy down the stretch.
2. October 17, 2011 – 7-4 vs. Florida
The first home game of the season saw the Lightning take a whopping 11 penalties leading to 5 power play goals for the Panthers. To showcase what a wreck the night was for their special teams – they also managed to give up a short-handed goal to Sean Bergenheim, who Florida had snatched away from Tampa Bay in the off-season.
The Panthers finished the night 5-9 on the power play, making a mockery of the Lightning’s penalty killing units. Ineffectiveness on the penalty kill would be another trend that continued throughout the season for the Lightning as they would finish 26th out of 30 teams in that category. Had they just been average in the penalty kill department, or more disciplined in the first place, they would have won that game easily.
3. January 3, 2012 – 7-3 at Toronto
The second of two matchups that would see the Lightning surrender 7 goals to the hapless Maple Leafs, this loss stung because of the timing. Tampa Bay was coming off of a 3-game home stand that saw them beat Philadelphia, Montreal, and Carolina to bring their record even at 17-17-3 and keep them in playoff contention.
Again sloppy play and an ineffective power play would send the Lightning to defeat. Toronto, despite having the worst-ranked penalty kill, managed to stop all five chances Tampa Bay had with the extra skater, including a 5-on-3 at the end of the first period.
The Maple Leafs would score two power play goals of their own and throw 42 shots on Mathieu Garon and Dwayne Roloson as the Lighting were thoroughly disorganized in the defensive zone all night.
4. March 8, 2012 – 3-2 (OT) at Washington
Dustin Tokarski was making his the first start of his NHL career and for 2 and ½ periods it looked like he would end up with a win. The Lightning led on the scoreboard 2-1, and had dominated most of the first two periods. However, inspired by a locker room speech from head coach Dale Hunter, the Caps outplayed the Lightning for most of the third period and stole the game out from under them.
Washington would net the tying goal when Marcus Johansson pounced on a turnover in the Lightning’s zone and whistled the puck past Tokarski (who could barely skate due to leg cramps). Another turnover in the overtime period would lead to Alex Ovechkin’s game winner.
If the Lightning hadn’t made those two mistakes, or if they could have padded their lead instead of spending most of the third period trapped in their own zone, they would have moved into a tie with the Caps for the last spot in the playoffs. Instead they would drop 3 points behind Washington and find themselves 5 points adrift of the division leading Panthers.
5. March 15th, 2012 – 3-1 vs. Toronto
Finally, the Lightning managed to keep the Maple Leafs under 7 goals for a game, but it didn’t matter as their goaltender, James Reimer, stood on his head all night long. This was the third game of a seven game home stand that the Lightning desperately needed to sweep. After splitting the first two games (a loss to Carolina and a win against Boston) they were hoping to pick on a downtrodden Toronto squad.
Instead, they got behind early and were unable to solve Reimer until the last 30 seconds of the game. The Lightning threw 35 shots at the young netminder and only St. Louis was able to beat him. Along the way he also made stunning saves on Ryan Malone, Brett Connolly and Steven Stamkos.
At the other end, despite playing well (Jake Gardiner’s goal is the only one he would want back) young goalie Dustin Tokarski would be yanked midway through the second period. The first two Toronto goals were the result of the Lightning giving the Leafs way too much room in the offensive zone, allowing them to set up quick one-timers that Tokarski had no chance to stop.
Though these five wins would have only given the Lightning 8 more points Florida and Washington would have each had 2 fewer points which would still result in the Lightning winning the division.
The good news for Lightning fans is that it shows how close they were to making the playoffs this season. A couple of goals here, a few penalty kills there and they would be locked in a tight series with New Jersey and the NHL wouldn’t have a rat problem on their hands.