If you only watched the Tampa Bay Lightning’s highlights this year, you may think that the team is either ready to breeze through the playoffs, or are a struggling group that will get swept out of the first round. On a surface level, that is the kind of season it has been for the Bolts, with the team having a dominant first half of the season capped off by a very average to bad looking second half. With the regular season reaching it’s waining last few games, many out there who do not watch the Lightning on a nightly basis could use some context about their early season success and recent struggles before we reach the playoffs.
Lightning Early Season Carried by Skill & Luck…
At the start of the 2017-18 season, the Lightning were, simply put, on fire offensively. Everyone in the line-up, from superstars like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos to rookies like Yanni Gourde and Mikhail Sergachev, were scoring at an unsustainably high rate. For weeks at a time, it felt like the team could just score at will on anyone in the league with their perfect passing and shooting. Along with this high shooting percentage was the standout play of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy who, for the first half of the season, was arguably the top goalie in the NHL, and you had a team that looked untouchable to the rest of the league.
As teams slowly understood their gameplan, however, they were able to get into the shooting and passing lanes that players like Kucherov and Stamkos preferred, slowing down their scoring acumen. This didn’t hurt the Lightning in short term, though, as secondary scorers like all-star Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, and even Chris Kunitz helped pick up the slack on a nightly basis. There was no lead the Lightning were afraid of, with the team often coming back from being down two or three goals to win in the third period or overtime.
This high-level of play continued all the way through the trade deadline when the Bolts were still looking like the team to beat in the NHL. By making the big trade for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, it appeared that general manager Steve Yzerman was ready to go all in on the Stanley Cup this season.
…Then the Lightning Returned to Earth
After their consistent success throughout the first two-thirds of the season, March was a difficult reality check for the Lightning. In one month, all of the hard work the Lightning put in to become one of the top teams in the league slowly started to unravel. After experiencing a somewhat unimpressive 10-game point streak that included seven overtime games at the start of the month, the Lightning hit a wall. Since Mar. 10th, they have gone 4-6-0, experiencing two losses to their division rival Boston Bruins in route to losing their grip on first place in the Atlantic.
Had this stretch of play occurred back in November, it largely would not have mattered in the grand scheme of the season. Teams experience highs and lows throughout a season, and a 4-6 record really isn’t the end of the world under most circumstances. However, it’s the way that the Lightning have been winning and losing these games that is concerning for the team.
Suddenly, everyone on the team has gone cold. Not only are they shooting poorly, hitting crossbars or shanking easy goals wide of the net; they are just looking slow and borderline uninterested at times throughout this stretch. The Lightning have had trouble playing complete games this season, oftentimes only having to put in two periods or less of hard play in order to put a game out of reach of their opponents. This bad habit has continued throughout the year, leading the team to be down by a goal or two before they start really playing.
Lightning Have No Time to Waste Before the Postseason
With just days left in the regular season, the Lightning are quickly running out of time to fix their March struggles. It’s not that this team can’t work out of this funk heading into the postseason, it just seems like they know how to right now. They keep making the same mistakes in the defensive zone, failing to clear or attempting to make a cute passing play that worked at the start of the season but now leaves the opponent with a free shot on Vasilevksiy. Besides this, their penalty kill ranks 26th in the league, so when the team takes a penalty, it often leads to a goal against.
The only good news for the Lightning is that they aren’t fighting for their playoff lives this season. Over the last few years, they needed to be perfect in March to even qualify for the postseason. By playing so well at the start of the year, they afforded themselves some room to make mistakes and still be securely in the playoffs. Ultimately that is all that matters to the team, as winning the Atlantic division is no guarantee of future success. However, if the Lightning aren’t able to find their mid-season form again, it will be a quick first-round exit for a team that was considered Stanely Cup favorites just a few weeks ago.
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.