The defending Eastern Conference Champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning have come out of the gate slow this NHL season. Their record through their first 20 games is 8 wins, 9 losses and 3 overtime losses for a grand total of 19 points. At this rate, the team won’t break 80 points and most certainly would miss the playoffs. Admittedly, this is not the start envisioned by Lightning fans after the deep playoff run that saw their boys come within two wins of hoisting the Stanley Cup.
It is fair to say that last season’s success created high expectations for the 2015-16 season. The long and successful playoff run fell just short of the ultimate goal but it built a mindset of unfinished business. The slow, almost stagnant start, coupled with the promise of these higher expectations have generated a slew of questions from both media and fans to figure out “what is wrong with the Lightning?”
Just Win Baby
I will certainly be in the minority around these parts by declaring that there is nothing wrong with them. Nothing that a five game winning streak couldn’t help. On Monday evening the Lightning lost to their cross-state rivals, the Florida Panthers by a score of 1 – 0. Anyone who has witnessed all 20 games played thus far would be hard pressed to point out a game in which the Lightning played better. From the opening drop of the puck until a fluke goal with 20 seconds left by Aaron Ekblad that spun off the skates of Victor Hedman and past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the win, the Lightning dominated the play in this game. They almost doubled the Panthers in shots on goal, 39 to 20. They out hit, won more faceoffs and blocked more shots than the Panthers, yet came away with no points for this effort.
As some of the players said after the game, they have to continue with this level of effort. Play like this, dominate your opponent and the wins will come. Nothing wrong with this team that even a four game winning streak couldn’t help. You see, the team is playing much better defense than last year and the performance by the goalies is improved over a year ago. When the team headed into training camp, coach Jon Cooper informed his team that there was a target on their back. As defending conference champs, all other Eastern Conference opponents raise their games just a bit when they play the defending champs. It is human nature, especially among athletes. To be the best, you have to beat the best. Until another team dethrones them, the Lightning wear the Eastern Conference title belt.
The main culprit to the sluggish beginning this year for the Lightning has been the scoring. The highest scoring team in the NHL last season is now mired at 24th in the league in scoring. May not sound like much but going from scoring 3.16 goals per game to 2.30 has cost the team some victories and more importantly, points in the regular season marathon race to the playoffs. On the surface, the scoring drop off of 0.86 goals per game sounds immaterial but when your team has lost four games by the score of 1 – 0, that scoring slump means the difference between a win and a loss. Means the difference between getting a point or two and bupkis. Over the 20 games played, the decrease in goal production has equaled 17.2 goals. What would be their record if they had those 17 goals? If they had 10 of those goals?
No sense crying over plummeting performance. The fact is that this Lightning team has amazing offensive talent. Talent that can score goals in bunches. Steven Stamkos is a world class sniper. Stamkos was the last NHL player to eclipse 60 goals in a season back in 2011-12. Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov have the skills to score 30 plus goals in this league. Then when you look down the roster and see names like Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn and there should be no doubt that this team will score goals.
Credit Cooper for instilling in his team the notion that the NHL is not in the business of forgiving. Yes, the team has experienced some injuries but all teams do and when Cooper tells his squad that the team on the schedule that night doesn’t care about who’s in or out of the lineup tonight, you can believe that the leaders on this team like Stamkos, Callahan, Hedman and Brian Boyle are telling their teammates to suck it up, lace them up and get out and win.
There’s nothing wrong with the team that even back to back wins couldn’t help. The next three games are at home beginning on Thursday night against the Metropolitan Division leading New York Rangers. To think that the Rangers don’t have an axe to grind against the team that beat them in the Eastern Conference finals last Spring would be a mistake. After New York, come the wounded Ducks from Anaheim. Last year, this team lost to Chicago in the Western Conference finals. After a Lightning like slow start, Anaheim has won a few games lately but continue to struggle. Then to close out this home stand, the Pacific Division leading Los Angeles Kings come to town. Two division leaders and Anaheim. These next three opponents are a great measuring stick for this year’s Lightning team.
Stay the Course
Cooper continues to experiment with the lines, partly due to the lack of scoring, partly due to injuries. He will most likely continue to move the pieces until he finds the right lines with the right chemistry to get his team some goals. Again, there is nothing wrong with the team that a victory couldn’t help. One of the oldest cliché’s in all of sports is for a player or a team to say they are taking it one game at a time.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, this is what they need to do. When dissecting stats from last year to this, you see that the team is taking just about the same number of shots this year per game (28.4) as they did last year (29.6) when they led the NHL in scoring. It is just that a smaller percentage of shots are going in this year. So, it would seem simple, take more shots. They need to do this, especially on the power play. Too many passes and not enough shots leads to the current lack of scoring.
It is far too early in the season for any fan (bandwagon or not) to jump ship. Yes, the team is scuffling a bit but this team has talent. The coach is the right guy for this team. The injuries have given their younger players down on the farm a chance for NHL ice time. Their goalie tandem is one of the best in the NHL. Despite all the rumors to the contrary, I believe that Steven Stamkos will re-sign with the team and put to rest once and for all the distraction of his contract.
This team will make the playoffs. As Chicago proved last year, the Stanley Cup Champion does not have to win their division. Be healthy, be sharp and be ready to lay it all on the ice come April, May and June and you will be okay. Fans in the Tampa Bay area, need to relax. This team will find itself sooner rather than later and when they do, they will score in droves.