In the world of sports, one week is all it takes for a team to go from everything being right to everything being wrong. For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the happened over the course of Thanksgiving week.
On Monday, the Lightning defeated the Buffalo Sabres 5-2, creating a three-game winning streak where the team looked to be back to their 2018-19 dominant form. On Wednesday, they lost to the St. Louis Blue in a close 4-3 game where they easily could have won.
Then, in back to back games against the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes, the Lightning melted down. First, they blew a 3-1 lead in the third period to the Capitals, then they gave up three goals to the Hurricanes in the first period of their 3-2 loss.
So, by the end of Thanksgiving week, the Lightning had gone 1-2-1, while suffering a three-game losing streak during the regular season for the first time since March 29, 2018. This creates a number of pressing questions about where the team is headed for the 2019-20 season.
Lightning Struggling Against Playoff Teams
The biggest disappointment of the Lighting’s three-game losing streak is that this was supposed to be a true test of where the franchise stands in 2019. While Tampa Bay has been able to take care of business against weaker opponents, they have struggled against playoff-quality teams like the Blues, Capitals, and Hurricanes.
With their three-losses, the Lightning have now only won four-games against opponents who are currently in a playoff position. All of those wins occurred in October, with the team going 0-6 against playoff quality teams in November.
What this means is that the Lightning simply aren’t playing up to the quality of their opponent as they have in the past. One trait of the Lightning over the years was that the franchise always played their best when they competed with recent Stanley Cup-winning teams like the Capitals or Blues.
Now, the Lightning look like what they were in November: a mediocre team that can beat weaker opponents without much issue, but simply can’t compete with the better teams in the NHL.
Lightning Lacking Consistency in 2019-20
Perhaps the biggest shock of the Lightning’s 2019-20 season is that they are exactly a .500 team at the start of December, sitting with a record of 12-9-3. By contrast, they were 18-7-1 at the start of December last season.
This begs the question, why are the Lightning a .500 team when they have so much of the same talent on their roster? While there’s a number of reasons why the biggest issue has been consistent play from their stars.
It starts with Andrei Vasilevskiy, who, one year after winning the Vezina Trophy, is posting mediocre statistics. In 17 games, he’s posted a 9-7-1 record, with a 2.96 goals-against and a .906 save percentage. This is, of course, a far cry from the numbers that won him the Vezina last season.
On offense, star players like Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are playing well, but they aren’t dominating games as they have in years past. This, along with secondary scorers like Tyler Johnson and Mathieu Joseph simply not producing, has left the team without those key goals they need to win close games.
Will Lightning Be a .500 Team in December?
The difficult question to ask here is: will the Lightning be a .500 team for the rest of the 2019-20 season?
Looking at their schedule, December will be the defining month for the Lightning. After playing only 11 games at home through the first two months of the season, the Bolts have 10 home games on their schedule this month. In theory, this will give them an opportunity to rack up some needed points, and to find some consistency in their game once again.
If the Lightning can get it going at home, they should be able to go at least 7-3 in December. This would go a long way to stabilizing their record while getting the franchise back on track for the 2020 playoffs.
However, if they struggle and go 5-5 or worse at home, it could be the death knell for the 2019-20 season before January even hits. The Lightning can’t afford to fall any further behind in the playoff race, especially with so many teams around the NHL dominating play this season.
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.