For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the start to the 2021-22 season couldn’t feel more different from 2020-21. While they are pulling a 2-2-0 record, that doesn’t necessarily reflect their play on the ice. Through four games, the Lightning have looked sloppy at best and completely outmatched at worst, giving up 17 goals while only scoring 12 of their own.
By contrast, to start the 2020-21 season, the Lightning only gave up 10 goals and scored 15 through their first four games while posting a record of 3-1-0. In many ways, these opening matches were indicative of what to expect for the future, as the team looked like a cohesive unit that was ready to march their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Now, there are plenty of reasons why the Lightning were much sharper in 2020-21. That team was very similar to the one that won the 2020 Stanley Cup, so the core players had chemistry forged through an unprecedented playoff experience. Also, due to how the season played out in sets of games, Tampa Bay only faced off against the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets, two teams that ended up missing the postseason.
So, to put it simply, the team right now is experiencing a full-on Stanley Cup slump. This shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, as Tampa Bay played more than 40 postseason games in less than a calendar year, with these grueling runs ending in shortened offseasons, giving little time to recoup.
However, it’s more than just exhaustion that is contributing to the Lightning’s slow start. The team is facing a few worrying trends that could become a real issue if they continue.
Injuries are Already Stacking up for Tampa Bay
Considering how early they are in their schedule, the Lightning are already dealing with significant injury concerns. Before the season even kicked off, defenseman Cal Foote had hand surgery that could keep him on the bench for the first month or more.
Then, after just one regular-season game, the Lightning’s defensive core was struck another blow when Zach Bogosian suffered a lower-body injury that will sideline him for four to six weeks. So, almost immediately, Tampa Bay’s defensive depth is being tested in a way that no one wanted to see.
Following this, Nikita Kucherov suffered what is being described as a “long-term” injury that could keep him out of the lineup for weeks or even months. Being one of the Lightning’s top players, this loss will be impossible to replace, so Tampa Bay will be forced to get creative and try out new forward lines to figure out some sort of temporary fix.
So, after just a week, the Lightning suffered two major long-term injuries that will fundamentally change how the team is built on the ice. This, along with their losses suffered throughout the offseason, will continue to reshape their lineup and expectations about what the team can do each and every night.
Lightning Are Struggling to Score
Due in part to these injuries and roster changes, the Lightning just haven’t been skating with the same confidence as they did last season. They are starting slow and are a step behind their normal play, which is all the more noticeable when their opponents are ready from puck drop.
To begin, Tampa Bay has given up the first goal in every game they played so far, meaning they are playing from behind immediately. After that, they have struggled to score 5-on-5, and their normally lethal powerplay has been mostly held silent.
Through four games, Tampa Bay has scored five goals 5-on-5, with three goals scored on the powerplay, two with the goalie pulled, and two goals coming in overtime. When you take out the 7-6 comeback win against the Detroit Red Wings, the Lightning have only scored 5 goals, with zero coming on the powerplay.
Normally this sort of scoring woes would be easily written off as early-season struggles that will be worked through, but as the Lightning deal with injuries to key offensive drivers, these problems will only become more noticeable. The team will need time to find new scoring lines that click consistently, which is always a painful process when you’re used to seeing a certain level of play each and every night.
Vasilevskiy Isn’t Carrying the Lightning to Victory
One unexpected piece to the Lightning’s early-season struggles is Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been far from his Conn Smythe Trophy-winning form. Through four games, he has posted a .893 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.22 goals-against average (GAA), which are far below his career numbers. By comparison, throughout the 2020-21 season, he posted a .925 SV% and a GAA of 2.21.
The Lightning are giving up a lot of prime scoring chances right now, and even if he was playing perfectly, a number of those shots would have gone in the net. Hopefully, this less-than-stellar play from Vasilevskiy will just be a blip caused by a team in front of him that is still figuring things out.
Lightning Have Time to Sort Out Their Issues
The good news for the Lightning is that despite their play to start the season, the team has still managed to pull out a few wins, which has kept this from turning into an all-out disaster. Being 2-2-0 isn’t bad, especially when you consider that they could have easily lost all four games given how they played at times.
So, while things may not be perfect, you have to expect this season to feel a bit rougher than last. This Lightning squad is different from the one the won back-to-back Stanley Cups, and it will take time for new chemistry to form and for players to get back to the level of play you would expect.
If they are still experiencing these same issues by game 10 to 15 of the season, then there should be a serious conversation about what the expectations for the Lightning will be for the rest of 2021-22.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.