Twenty-two goals in four games. It may only be four games, but it should worry you if you’re a Tampa Bay Lightning fan.
In the span of 22 goals allowed over a four-game losing streak, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s inconsistent, slow burn of a season has quickly turned into a fire that threatens to mushroom into a raging inferno that swallows up their playoff hopes if they don’t turn things around soon. While looking at the big picture, one might say, “It’s only four games out of 82, there’s plenty of hockey left to be played.” Normally I’m an optimist, not one to panic when the Lightning go through a slump. Slumps are inevitable for any team during the long journey of an 82-game season. Historically, the Bolts have been a team that has fought through early-season rough patches only to right the ship and power through the month of January on the way to a spot in the playoffs. I’ve always been one to preach patience and give the Lightning a chance to right the ship and work through their struggles. After back-to-back seasons of deep playoff runs, they had earned that leeway.
After 22 goals in four games, I’m not so sure they deserve that leeway anymore. Could the team turn things around? Absolutely. But at this moment in time, you should worry if you’re a Lightning fan.
Something feels different about this season. Something feels different about this losing streak. Giving up 22 goals in four games will do that. But the truth is, even before the calendar flipped to 2017, things weren’t exactly going swimmingly for the guys who reside at 401 Channelside Drive. There have been plenty of issues plaguing the Bolts since the beginning of the season. We’re past the point of where these are just minor problems they can work through. We’re at the point where the issues have become the identity of the 2016-17 Lightning.
The staggering number of times they’ve given up the first goal of the game.
The alarming number of times they turn the puck over in the neutral zone or the defensive zone every night.
Their shortcomings when it comes to playing without the puck and how their goals allowed per game has plummeted near the bottom of the NHL.
The number of high-quality scoring chances they allow on a nightly basis.
The penalty killing woes and their failure to clear the zone when they have chances to do so.
The failure of the goaltending to come up with timely saves.
The team’s consistent inconsistency from game-to-game, even period-to-period, and their lack of desperation.
The failure of the coaching staff to get the most out of this group.
At some point, all of these problems have reared their ugly head during this very trying season. And I haven’t even gotten to the number of injuries the Lightning have dealt with throughout much of it. This team has missed Steven Stamkos a lot more this season than they have in the past, and they’ve also seen Jonathan Drouin, Brayden Point, Anton Stralman, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Brian Boyle, Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan and Ben Bishop miss time because of injuries. Although not every team deals with injuries to that extent, everyone has to deal with some injuries at some point. Every team has had to deal with the compressed schedule because of the World Cup of Hockey. The injuries and the schedule can’t be used as an excuse anymore. Of all of this team’s problems, the most worrisome that we’ve seen from this team is its inability to keep the puck out of their own net.
Some of that is on the goaltending. More of that is on the play in front of the goaltending. Either way, the defensive numbers are disturbing. As of this writing, the Lightning are in a three-way tie for fifth-most goals allowed per game in the league at 2.98. They haven’t finished a season allowing more than an average of three goals per game since 2012-13, when they allowed 3.06 an outing. The year before, they allowed a league-worst 3.39 goals per game. Last year, they only allowed 2.41, the fifth-lowest mark in the NHL and the lowest GAA in franchise history. A season ago, they allowed four or more goals in a game just 23 times out of 82 games. They only surrendered five goals in a game 11 times. The Lightning also never gave up six goals in a game.
Fast forward to this season. Through their first 42 games, Tampa Bay has allowed 4 or more goals 16 times. In eight of those games, the opposition has found the back of the net five times. In four of those games, they’ve allowed six goals! What’s even more alarming is how three of those six-goal outbursts by the opposition have occurred during their current four-game losing streak. During this skid, they allowed six goals each in back-to-back games for the first time since April 2013 when they lost 6-3 in Pittsburgh and 6-5 in overtime at Washington. The 22 goals in their four-game losing streak is the most they’ve allowed in a four-game span since permitting 21 goals over four games from October 10-17, 2011. They lost all four of those contests. If you count the game before that span, a 4-1 loss in Boston, that raises it to 25 goals in that five-game stretch. I know that was over five years ago, but not coincidentally, that was a season in which the Bolts missed the playoffs the year after losing to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. This is a problem that has to be fixed, but unfortunately, it’s not one of those things that’s easily solved.
Some of the blame certainly falls on the goaltenders. Even before Bishop went down with a lower-body injury on December 20th, he wasn’t having his best season. The talk of this being his last season in Tampa certainly doesn’t help matters. Andrei Vasilevskiy, the heir apparent, is finally seeing extended time as the starting goalie since Bishop got hurt. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that Vasilevskiy has largely struggled. Not all of that is on the young netminder, as the team’s defensive play has deteriorated in front of him. He’s made some big saves just to keep his team in games and give them a fighting chance to try and rally from deficits. But there’s no denying that he’s let some goals get by that he should stop. So many of his struggles are clearly mental, and part of that is the fact that he’s played more games in a row than he’s used to.
I know that right now, having Vasilevskiy in net gives the Lightning their best chance to win. But he’s played 10 games in a row since Bishop was injured, starting the last nine. Before this stretch, the most consecutive games he has ever started at the NHL level was six, which was in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals when Bishop also suffered an injury. While he does have to learn how to fight through a slump, as every goalie does, he’s only been pulled in one of those nine starts. His save percentage over that time? A ghastly .877. I think giving him a night off during this stretch couldn’t have hurt.
Plenty of blame also falls on the team’s defensive corps, which has been a mess outside of Victor Hedman and Stralman, and even those two have had a few lapses this season. Slater Koekkoek has made some mistakes, but he’s also played reasonably well when given the ice time (more on that in a bit). But is there room for improvement with him? Absolutely. However, there’s no denying that the rest of the team’s blue line has largely struggled. Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr have severely regressed this season. Braydon Coburn has had his bad moments with turnovers as well. Nikita Nesterov has proven to be more effective as a forward than as a defenseman, having his issues with turning the puck over and having proper positioning in the defensive zone. There’s no doubt this team needs some help on the blue line, particularly a right-handed shot, as Stralman and Sustr are the only right-handed shooting d-men of the team’s regular blue-liners on the roster. Fans have wondered why general manager Steve Yzerman hasn’t made a deal already. Remaining status quo probably isn’t a good idea, and I doubt that he’s just sitting on his hands waiting for the team to magically turn itself around. But here’s the problem: The trade market is as quiet as its ever been in the NHL. Teams don’t make mid-season deals anymore. Even the trade deadline has been quiet over the last couple of years, as all the big trades happen during the offseason. A large part of that is due to the salary cap, as so many teams (including the Lightning) are pretty tight against the cap. When trades do get done nowadays, usually some salary gets retained by teams dealing away players. It’s the nature of today’s NHL.
Looking back on this team’s struggles so far this season, it’s also easy to point out how bad starts and falling behind early have become so commonplace that we’ve all become numb to it. In Tampa Bay’s first 42 games, they’ve given up the game’s opening goal 26 times. Only Colorado (27), Philadelphia (27), and Vancouver (28) have given up more game-opening goals than the Lightning. Time after time, we’ve seen the Lightning surrender the first goal of the game, sometimes the first two goals of the game. Falling behind early and playing from behind have become far too common of a sight this season. We’ve talked about it so much, but it’s worth mentioning again because it has long gone past being a trend the team was going through. It has become their identity. It makes you wonder why and how the Lightning continually take a lot of time to get going in games. How they look unprepared time and time again. Which leads me to Lightning head coach Jon Cooper.
Since Cooper took over the job in March 2013, he’s had a great run of success with the Bolts after having been a winner at every level he’s coached. Three straight playoff appearances in his first three full seasons. A trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. A game away from returning there in 2016. But he’s not without blame up to this point. The handling of Vasilevskiy is certainly worrisome. The constant line shuffling has worked at times, while at others, it seems like he’s just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Limiting the ice time of a guy like Koekkoek and even making him a healthy scratch when a young defenseman like him needs all the ice time he can handle in order to get better and build his confidence up (yes, I know I sound like I’m contradicting myself with Vasilevskiy and Koekkoek, but they play completely different positions). Younger guys need to know they’re not going to be put on the bench every time they make a mistake, and you’d have thought the lesson would’ve been learned after the Drouin situation a year ago. I also see the way this team continues to play without desperation in a time when they need to start playing with desperation. I’m certainly not saying that the team needs to make a coaching change, but he definitely deserves some flak for how things have gone this season. When your team makes the same mistakes over and over again and those mistakes become part of your team’s identity, you certainly deserve your share of the blame.
This isn’t like last season, or any past years where the Lightning were treading water in December only to bounce back with a hugely successful January while riding that momentum all the way into the playoffs. It’s a much different animal. This is not a confident hockey team. This is not a team that can afford to just think it can flip the switch and everything will be okay. As it stands right now, they’re currently 12th in the Eastern Conference with 42 points. There’s 40 games left, and there’s time to turn things around, as they’re six points behind Philadelphia for the final wild card spot in the East and four points behind Ottawa for third place in the Atlantic Division. Not an insurmountable deficit, but the clock is ticking.
The Lightning have eight games remaining before the All-Star break at the end of January, including a six-game road trip against Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose, Arizona, Chicago, and Florida. This trip and the other two homes games against Buffalo and Columbus will go a long way in determining the Bolts’ fate the rest of the way. Vasilevskiy will have to snap out of his slump or at least tread water until Bishop returns. The Bolts need to find a way to start playing with a lead. They have to find a way to improve their play in front of Vasilevskiy and help keep pucks out of their net. At some point, Yzerman will probably need to find a deal to be made to shake things up. Cooper has to have this team prepared and ready to go. At this point, it’s looks like a lot to ask. They can still turn things around, but it needs to happen now. In fact, it needed to happen a week ago. But here we are, 22 goals and an ugly four-game losing streak later. If they don’t turn it around, there could be plenty of changes happening with this franchise. And I don’t blame the fan base for being worried about where this season is headed.