The severe storm warnings the Tampa Bay Lightning offense was sending out a few weeks back have fizzled into passing showers in the last two weeks. With the exception of an eight-goal outburst against the Phoenix Coyotes last week, the Bolts offense has not been producing consistently.
Tampa’s steady five-point lead over the Washington Capitals in the Southeast division is down to one point. In fact, the Capitals may the reason for the Bolts lack of offensive production lately.
Tampa had all of the momentum to start the month of February. They were on a six game winning streak and four games into a 12-game, 36-day home stand. Then the Caps came to town with an offensive system Tampa had not seen this year.
In their 12 games since the loss to Washington, the Bolts are 5-5-2 and have scored two goals or less seven times. Tampa lost their second consecutive game on Thursday night, a 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. The 2-1 score was the fourth straight game that ended in that same result for the Lightning. They managed to split the four one-goal games, going 2-2
While the recent power outage over their last 12 games may be cause for concern, the numbers tell a different story. The Lightning power play is converting 19.2 percent of their chances scoring 10 goals in 52 opportunities. They have outshot their opponents 375-342 over the same 12 game span.
So why aren’t the Bolts scoring as they were earlier in the season? One reason is the mini-slump of Steven Stamkos. Stamkos has four points in his last eight games. That is his lowest out-put through any other eight game stretches this season. In fact, if you break the season down through 64 games, Stamkos usually averages almost 11 points every eight games, starting with the first game of the season.
Reason number two is Guy Boucher’s commitment to a more trapping style of play on defense since their trip to Naples almost two weeks ago. Changing defensive styles usually lead to a decrease in offensive production. Just ask their opponent on Monday night, the Washington capitals.
The Bolts usually like to play a 1-3-1 style but have been trapping a lot more between the red and blue-line, in some cases with four defenders awaiting the opposition’s puck carriers.
The change was necessary for two reasons. First, the 1-3-1 became harder to play when the Lightning fell behind. In the 5-2 loss against the Caps back in early February, Washington did some film study and figured out how to beat the 1-3-1 the Bolts were employing.
The system Washington came to town with was specifically designed to beat the Bolts. It also caused some confusion following the game from Lightning players.
Steven Stamkos said, “I don’t know if it was kind of a mockery of our system or a game plan, but they obviously had a couple days to prepare for the game and then that’s what they thought best.”It killed some time, so I guess it was successful that way. Obviously, a first for us seeing a team try that.”
Washington started holding the puck deep in its own zone. The style of play was reminiscent of a four corners offense, pre-shot clock era, in college basketball. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau commented after the win that the new style could only work if you were ahead or if you were tied on the road and wanted to try for at least one point.
Washington was very patient when holding the puck. Caps defenders simply stood still and waited, eventually forcing Tampa into their own offensive zone after the puck. The middle three players also had to commit, moving down to cover the forwards along the outside. This would also prevent the long breakout pass that the Caps are so good at executing.
The Caps would then one-pass the puck and fire it the length of the ice. They usually beat the icing call as Tampa was caught with four defenders in the neutral zone with just one man back. Tampa was also caught flat-footed, not knowing which way the outlet pass was headed; this gave the Caps a jump on the extra long dump in. The Caps quick forwards were able to beat the lone Bolt defender to the puck creating deep offensive possessions.
The slot areas opened up down low for the Washington snipers, not to mention that after skating the length of the ice twice, the Bolts were gassed on their shifts. The result for Washington was a five-goal performance, something the Caps had accomplished just one time in their previous 29 games and a feat they have accomplished just one time since.
The NHL, NBA, and NFL are copycat leagues, when one team exploits a weakness or figures out a way to beat a system you can bet everyone will follow. That is exactly what the Hurricanes, Flyers, and Red Wings and to a much lesser extent, the Florida Panthers tried in the next four games against the Lightning. None of the four had the success the Caps did but the Lightning won just one of those games.
Bolts head coach Guy Boucher took his team and took off for some rest and relaxation for two days in Naples Florida but you can bet somewhere along the way he addressed the new way the Lightning were going to come back and play.
They immediatly unveiled a different style of the 1-3-1, committing more to a trapping style of play which created more turnovers in the neutral zone. They reeled off three straight wins and while they have lost two in a row, their defense has been stellar in the process adjusting quite nicely.
Tampa also ran into the red-hot New Jersey Devils and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins. They also played without team captain Vinny Lecavalier against the Bruins. Lecavalier has been their hottest scorer of late with 12 points in his last 10 games.
He was injured in the loss on Wednesday night in what team officials said is a lower body injury.
It will be interesting to see what happens when Tampa and Washington collide on Monday night. Will the Caps continue to try to force the Bolts to chase if they can get a lead? On the other hand, will the Lightning continue to attack at the blue line and force the play in the neutral zone, creating turnovers?
As long as both teams can win their game over the weekend, Mondays contest will be for first place in the Southeast division. The Bolts host the Canadians on Saturday and the Caps travel to play the depleted Florida Panthers on Sunday.