The Tampa Bay Lightning fell to the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-3 on Friday, in a game where the final scoreboard doesn’t tell the whole story. It will be how the team bounces back from the loss that’s an important point in their 82-game regular season.
The Blue Jackets brought it to the Lightning from the opening faceoff, taking a 2-0 lead on their first three shots of the game and never looking back. The Lightning were unable to register a shot on goal until just after the midway point of the first period, in a game head coach Jon Cooper described as a “stinker” for the team.
Despite being outshot 23-13 through forty minutes, the Lightning entered the third period down just 3-2. Ondrej Palat tied the game at three goals apiece early, but the Blue Jackets made it 4-3 just 57 seconds later. Cam Atkinson capitalized on a Lightning turnover to make it 5-3 with under nine minutes in regulation to put the game out of reach.
The Lightning were outshot 38-28 in the game and gave up more than four goals for just the second time all season. After yielding five goals in a game, it’s easy to point to goaltending, but the Lightning were quick to acknowledge that the team’s issues began with the play in front of Ben Bishop.
“I know it was 3-3, but the right team won the hockey game,” Cooper said during a press conference. “I give our guys credit. They battled back, but we just made way too many mistakes.”
The Lightning had 12 turnovers with four leading directly to goals by the Blue Jackets — “freebies” as Cooper called them.
After the game, Bishop said he felt like he let the team down in the loss, but his teammates and Cooper disagreed.
“Our goaltenders have been our best players since the start of the season. It’s not even close to being on him (Bishop). We have to play better in front of him,” Jason Garrison said, when asked about Bishop’s performance in the game.
“We could have put Ben (Bishop) and (Andrei) Vasilevskiy in (the net) at the same time and I don’t think it would have made a difference,” Cooper said. “It had nothing to do with goaltending.”
Palat perhaps summed things up best for the Lightning.
“They outskated us and outworked us the full 60 minutes,” he said. “We gotta be better. The effort has to be way better.”
With the loss, the Lightning dropped to 13-8-1 and second in the Atlantic Division with 27 points. They begin a three-game road trip when they face the Boston Bruins on Saturday.
How can the Lightning bounce back from their performance against the Blue Jackets?
The most glaring aspect of the Lightning’s game missing from Friday’s loss to the Blue Jackets was a lack of energy and intensity. They are at their best when they play the fast-paced, puck possession style that compliments their speed and skill game, but it wasn’t there.
The Lightning played their seventh game in the past 12 days and will play three games in the next five days. The condensed 82-game schedule is a result of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey which took place just before the start of the season, and is considered a reason why many teams are experiencing a string of injuries across the league.
The high-energy play of the Lightning is what facilitates the team’s fast-paced game and it all begins with a smooth transition from the team’s own defensive zone. There are injuries to key players — Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, to name a couple — but the Lightning showed last postseason, when both players were lost to injury, that they are capable of picking up the slack in their absence.
Stralman is sorely missed on the Lightning’s blue line and his return to the lineup from an upper-body injury is currently unknown. He and Victor Hedman often pair together and are the defensemen who get the wheels spinning for the Lightning offense through crisp breakout passes that allow the team’s forwards to generate speed out of the Lightning’s defensive zone.
The Lightning’s defense corps usually handles those crisp passes well as a collective unit, but it was missing in the team’s own end on Friday. Instead, players were missing routine passes and forwards and defensemen were guilty of costly turnovers that resulted in goals for the Blue Jackets. Those missed passes and turnovers may be a result of a team that’s worn down physically given their schedule, but the their is no way around the team’s fast-paced style being inhibited without a smooth transition from their own end, and it has negative consequences.
Cooper called the Lightning’s inconsistency the team’s “Achilles’ heel” in the early part of the season, after a second period lapse in Wednesday’s 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.
Through 22 games, the team has experienced its share of ups and downs, in games and from game-to-game over the course of the schedule. The Lightning have often been able to rely upon the goaltending of Bishop and Vasilevskiy when they are missing their offensive spark, or to make big saves in key situations in close games.
The team’s depth at the forward position has come through during many nights, as the Lightning have been able to overcome slow starts to games or periods to score goals in come from behind victories to earn points. However, the Lightning cannot continue to rely upon their skill level to win games and need to get back to being more consistent night to night by outworking their opponent — a defining characteristic for this team under Cooper.
“We got taught a lesson by a team that worked way harder than us,” Cooper said on Friday. “We wanted to skill a game and not get in anybody’s way and not go to any area that you have to pay the price, and that’s what happens.
“You cannot rely on your skill to skill everything out.”
The team needs a full 60-minute game where they score first and are able to dictate the play. Being down two goals early on, as was the case on Friday, is often a hole that’s too much to overcome in today’s NHL.
The Lightning will have the opportunity to bounce back when they face the Boston Bruins on Sunday, followed by a re-match with the Blue Jackets on Tuesday and the St. Louis Blue on Thursday.
Cooper recognizes that games like the one on Friday happen over the course of an NHL regular season and he is confident in his team’s ability to bounce back after a disappointing effort.
“It’s 82 games. I think every coach will stand up here at some point in the year and deliver this — it happens,” Cooper said on Friday. “Usually if this ever happens, we usually follow it up with an effort.”
The Lightning followed a 6-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Oct. 30 — the only other game Cooper called a “stinker” for the team this season — by beating the New York Islanders 6-1 on Nov. 1. The Bruins, however, will pose a tougher challenge than the Islanders did earlier this season, and will be a good test for the Lightning.
“We are playing three really good teams on the road…they are big time compete games…we’ll regroup,” Cooper said.
Games like Friday’s loss to the Blue Jackets are bound to happen over the course of an NHL regular season, but it’s how a team responds to them that makes the difference.
The Lightning have that opportunity on Sunday and must bounce back strong against the Bruins in an important game.