As the 2021-22 regular season enters the final stretch, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in a bit of a low point. After starting the season strong and playing dominant hockey throughout the doldrums of January, they hit a bit of a rough patch, going 9-9-2 over their last 20 games.
Despite these mediocre results, given the divide in the East Division between the final wild-card team and ninth-place, Tampa Bay could effectively lose every remaining game and still make the playoffs. For the Lightning, it doesn’t really matter who they play in Round 1, or where they play their games. As they showed in 2021, when they cut their way through fantastic division opponents on the road in Rounds 1 and 2, they are comfortable taking on teams in their building that are superior in terms of regular-season success.
However, while the outcome of their remaining games may not dictate their chance to compete for a historic third-straight Stanley Cup, it could showcase an area of weakness that separates this team from the squads in 2020 and 2021. To put it simply, the Lightning look exhausted.
Lightning Showing Wear From Long Postseason Runs
It’s not uncommon for teams to show fatigue after making one or two deep runs in the postseason. Hockey is an incredibly taxing sport under the best circumstances, and playing an additional 20-plus games at playoff intensity cranks up the wear and tear to 11.
For the Lightning, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups was truly historic, not just with their play on the ice but in the timeframe the games took place. From Aug. 1, 2020, through the end of the 2022 regular season, Tampa Bay will have played 138 regular-season games, along with an additional 48 postseason games. So, in less than two calendar years, they will have experienced more than two full seasons of hockey, along with reduced offseasons to recover from that play.
Needless to say, all of this hockey will take its toll on the Lightning. You’ve started to see it on the ice, as the team has lacked those crisp passes and smart plays with the puck during this mediocre stretch. At times they will play dominant hockey, but they are also just as likely to overthink the situation, pass the puck to the wrong area of the ice, or worse, give their opponents an easy rush chance.
Another point of concern is Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has looked human over his last 15 starts. In any regular season, there will be dips in play, but Vasilevskiy has posted a save percentage under .900 in seven of his last 15 games, which is well below his normally pristine play.
Given how much hockey he has played over the last 18 months or so, including starting all 46 postseason games, it’s understandable that he might just be tired, causing his focus to slip and a few more goals to slip by. The good news here is backup Brian Elliott has been playing well, so he can be leaned on in the final weeks of the season so Vasilevskiy can get more rest and prepare for the playoffs.
Lightning Still a Contender Despite Slipping Play
Despite the obvious concerns surrounding the Lightning’s relatively weak play in recent weeks, the team still is in a solid position to defend their back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. They have an experienced roster that can keep up with anyone in the NHL, and more than enough depth to absorb the eventual gut punches that the playoffs send their way.
However, while they are still a contender, this Lightning squad simply isn’t in as good of a place as they were for their previous postseason runs. They have more miles on their body, along with new faces up and down the lineup who will be looking to contribute to the team’s success. Those factors, along with the normal unexpected outcomes brought forth by the playoffs, means Tampa Bay could just as easily with the 2022 Stanley Cup as they are to lose in Round 1.
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.