Lightning Wonder If It Is Time to Panic

Yes, the NHL 2015-16 season for the Tampa Bay Lightning is only 16 games old. Hardly seems that with less than 20 games played that this season is at a critical point for the Lightning, yet based on some fans, the season is all but over. The team is already 11 points behind the front running Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division.

Further, the Lightning are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The very last playoff spot in the Conference and they are holding onto that with the slimmest of margins as Detroit and Boston who are one point back each have two games in hand over Tampa. It also doesn’t help that odds makers in Vegas had the Lightning as the second most favorite NHL team to win the Stanley Cup this season, right behind those Blackhawks from Chicago.

So, with those lofty expectations, the question becomes: how the mighty have fallen? For a team that came within two wins of lifting the Stanley Cup, that memory seems like a lifetime ago. The fact of the matter is the last game of the Stanley Cup Final was less than 150 days ago. Perhaps what the team is experiencing is the playoff hangover.

(Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)
The hangover effect from the Stanley Cup run?(Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

How many among us haven’t felt the haze and stupor that comes from a regular hangover. Depending on the severity, comes false promises of never doing that again. If only the headache would go away or at least stop pounding for a minute. Others believe in the “hair of the dog”, which I wouldn’t even begin to know how to apply to an NHL team.

Playoff Hangover

What in the world is going wrong for the Lightning? Assuming that there is something wrong with the team, it could be the playoff hangover. Sure, the schedule makers did the team no favors as 11 of their first 16 games were on the road. Funny thing is that the team actually is 5-4-2 on the road. Not bad, as Coach Jon Cooper has the mindset that a point a game on the road is the goal for this NHL team so with 12 points in 11 road games, they are right on track.

If it is a lingering hangover from the long playoff run, maybe being on the road was good for the team. While on the road, the players tend to lean on each other a bit more than at home when the practice or game is done, the players head to their individual homes. On the road, the eventual destination for the evening is the team hotel.

That could explain the 2-3 home record, although the five game sample size is small. Further evidence that this year is not last year, the team that had the best home record in the NHL last season is a game below .500 at Amalie Arena this year. Okay, so the fans and the players have to accept the fact that it is ’15-16, not ’14-15 as Cooper has said a few times over the last couple weeks.

With 16 games played, that leaves 66 games left on the schedule, 30 on the road and 36 at home. Let’s assume that the team will continue to earn at least a point a game on the road and add 30 points for the remaining road games. With the 16 points in the first 16 games that will bring the total to 46 points.

To finish with 100 points, of the remaining 36 homes games, they would have to win 27 of the 36 home games. Keep in mind, that last season only two Eastern Conference playoff teams earned a playoff berth with less than 100 points, Ottawa with 99 points and Pittsburgh with 98 points.

Perhaps, the argument could be made that with teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricane, and the Buffalo Sabres, the Eastern Conference is a little softer than last year but it still looks like 100 points gets you a playoff spot. More importantly, the Lightning need to play as if they need every one of those 100 points to get in the post-season.

It may seem like a daunting task to ask this team to win 27 of the remaining 36 home games. That will mean that they will finish with a 29-12 home ice record. For those fans that figure it cannot be done, they were actually five games better last season so it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Especially, for a team that is basically intact from last season.

That was Then, This is Now

While the team is not scoring at the league leading pace they had just a season ago, they have stepped up defensively and are allowing less goals per game than a year ago. Good thing too, as their scoring has drastically dropped by more than three quarters of a goal. While it is too early to hit the panic button for the team and their fans, it is not too early to at least be more than mildly concerned about turning the ship around.

During this season, Cooper has infused the mantra about this year not being the same as last year. Okay, we get it. But let’s add some perspective to this line of thinking. Already some fans want to get rid of Ben Bishop. For those fans, I urge you to take a look at Bishop’s performance closely.

In his Vezina finalist season two years ago, Bishop had a 2.23 goals against average and a save percentage of .924. Last year his numbers were 2.32 GAA and .916 SV percentage, a slight drop from the previous year but still very good. This year in 13 games, his numbers are 2.24 and .920. The numbers that Bishop is putting up are reminiscent of his Vezina finalist year. Yet, riding a five game losing streak, certain fans want the team to bench him or trade him.

Cooper isn’t panicking yet but he is experimenting. He knows that if the team squanders more opportunities to earn points, the hurdle becomes too big to climb. Let him continue to mix and match his lines. He has to find the right combinations every night and if those combos need to change for the game after that, then so be it, let Cooper be the mad scientist. If Cooper needs to show his team some anger, he ought to let loose.

Cooper also knows this team very well. Having coached the team now for two and a half years he knows these guys as well as any coach in this league knows his players. Cooper coached many of his current team when he was the coach of the AHL affiliate for the Lightning in both Norfolk and Syracuse. He won the Calder Cup in Norfolk with guys like Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat.

He coached Nikita Kucherov, Cedric Paquette, J.T. Brown, and Andrej Sustr in Syracuse. He’s coached most of the rest of the current Lightning team since he was appointed coach back in 2013. Since only one player changed from last season to this, Erik Condra replacing Brendan Morrow, it should come as no surprise that Condra played for Cooper as a member of the Texarkana Bandits of the NAHL back in 2003-04. Again, few NHL coaches know their players like Cooper knows his.

At the risk of repeating myself, there is no need to panic yet if you are a fan of the Lighting. There are many games left to be played. But each game is important. The team cannot let the opportunity of securing points go by the wayside, especially at home.

The next stretch of games sees the team at home for seven of the next nine games. Home cooking. Seeing the family. Finding the routines that work for you. It is not critical, no time to panic yet. But it is important for the team, the coaching staff and everyone in the Lightning organization to find their mojo. Find it now, before it does become time to panic.