Adversity builds character. It is a phrase as old as time, but there is truth in these words. When it comes to the sports world, occasional losing streaks can be as important as winning. When you are winning, it is easy to overlook weaknesses that can become glaring issues during a deep playoff run. With a string of losses comes introspection and the time to properly evaluate your current situation.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, struggles were few and far between to start off the season. The Lightning went three full weeks without a regulation loss before hitting their first bumps in the road. After suffering four losses in their last six games, the Lightning went from superhuman to decidedly average in a matter of two weeks. Everyone knew that the Lightning couldn’t keep winning forever, but this recent weak play felt more evident from a team out of which you expect perfection.
Lightning Failing to Start Strong
When the Lightning are firing on all cylinders, they have an offensive potential unlike any other in the league. Besides Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos scoring at a league-leading pace, secondary players like Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat have all contributed to the scoresheet in a consistent manner. With the breakout potential of these players, there really is no lead safe from the Lightning. As in the game against the Chicago Blackhawks, being down two goals early is a manageable stumble rather than an outright panic for the Lightning.
However, consistently being behind in games will never be a recipe for success. In three of their four losses during this streak, the Lightning were down at least 3-0 before starting a push back. While they were able to make the games competitive in the third period, they never had an opportunity to win. Even when they shut out the Buffalo Sabres, the Lightning still didn’t look dominant like they did in October. Some of this slow play is just the natural ebbs and flows of a season, but there is a glaring issue that the Lightning will need to address: overpassing.
Re-Opening the Passing Lanes
It can be easy to undersell great passing. Typically, passing only gets noticed when it is a crazy highlight-reel play, or the passing is so bad that it leads to a game-breaking turnover. A major part of the Lightning’s early-season success has been their improved passing game. At times this season, it felt like the Lightning had an extra skater on the ice with how crisp and perfect their passing was.
Teams are starting to adapt to the Lightning’s style, however. They are getting into their passing lanes at the blue line, forcing the Lightning to either chip the puck in deep or turn the puck over. Even on the power play, where the Lightning had been so dominant, they are struggling to get back into the offensive zone after one clear.
This is nothing new for Tampa Bay. Last season, the Lightning had a tendency to turn down prime shots on goal to go for one more pass. When it worked, it led to a goal or a scoring chance, but teams figured this out and took away those passing lanes. This led to many bad turnovers in spots that could have been goals or at least could have forced the opposing goaltender to make a save.
Fixing the Passing Problem
Fortunately for the Lightning, this passing problem does have a relatively easy fix. As a team, if the Lightning can look towards the net when given the opportunity instead of going for a cross-ice pass, they will be able to generate more scoring opportunities. At the least, they will reduce the number of costly turnovers that have been a major contributor to their being down early in games.
The Lightning are as talented as any other roster in the league, so they should be able to play their way out of this current slump. Even if they keep up their tendency to overpass, they will still find ways to win games and score flashy goals like they did at the start of the year. This passing issue needs to be addressed sooner rather than later if the Lightning want to make another deep run in the playoffs since a great opponent will pick up on this tendency and exploit it after a game or two.
Besides, the Lightning have to improve if they want to stay at the top of the league. With the Maple Leafs right behind them in the standings, they have little room to stagnate if they want to win the Atlantic Division.
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.