Forget about the grind, dealing with injuries, the highs and the lows -- the biggest challenge Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher says he's faced in his first season as an NHL coach is trying to stay on the right side of that very thin line between winning and losing.
"That's my learning curve in my first year as a coach in the NHL," Boucher told NHL.com. "It's amazing how much you're walking a thin line. Just a few games here and there -- it's a weird thing."
The Lightning have been falling to the wrong side of the line too often this month.
They're 2-5-4 since finishing February on a three-game win streak and have watched Washington zip past them in the Southeast Division race. The Lightning were five points ahead of Washington on Feb. 28, but today they trail the Capitals by seven points and barely are hanging on to fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
Boucher, who spoke to NHL.com prior to Tampa's 5-2 loss to the Islanders on Tuesday, said the difference on most nights is a matter of depth. He said the Lightning's lack of it due to some key injuries has affected their play in the third period of games.
Tampa Bay has a minus-4 goal differential in the third period this month and is minus-8 in the 18 games that Ryan Malone
has missed with an abdominal muscle injury. The Lightning are 6-6-6 over that span.
"Third periods are all about depth, and when you've got depth you can maintain and sustain your efficiency, drive, puck possession and forecheck," Boucher said. "We haven't had depth for a long, long time now and it's taking a toll."
Malone last played Feb. 8, and Boucher said the top-six power forward has been irreplaceable.
"I would say Malone is a huge, huge miss for us because he was on the power play and probably our most effective guy on the power play," Boucher said. "He was on the top two lines. He's a big guy, smart, and he's able to give us more physicality. We've been missing this guy for a while -- seems like forever."
Another top-six forward, Steve Downie, has missed nine straight games with a lower-body injury. Simon Gagne recently sat out a game at Ottawa and Vincent Lecavalier
received a game misconduct 19:51 into last week's shootout loss at Montreal. As Boucher said, replacing two top-six forwards is nearly impossible. Having to play without three for five periods? "Forget it -- you're not even the same team."
As a result, Nate Thompson
, Adam Hall
, Dominic Moore, Blair Jones and Mattias Ritola have been forced to play bigger minutes on some nights. Jones and Ritola started the season in the American Hockey League.
"We need a bit more poise, but obviously missing the guys we're missing, you miss exactly that, the experience," Boucher said. "Now we're asking American leaguers to come up and have the poise in the third period that those guys (Downie and Malone) have. It's just not going to happen, and that's normal."
The Lightning's secondary scoring has suffered with players playing out of position. It has been inconsistent bordering on non-existent, but not helping matters is Steven Stamkos
' ill-timed slump. He has just 3 goals in his last 19 games and 5 in the 22 games since the All-Star break.
"They've done a terrific job all year long, but when you put them in a spot that is too much for them it doesn't necessarily pay off for us," Boucher said of the Lightning's role players. "It's not that they're not good players, they're just amazing in their roles, their slots. When you put them up in those situations they're OK for one or two games, but after that it's more difficult and that's normal. I'm not expecting them to take the place of a Malone or Downie. It's not fair."
The good news is Malone and Downie are on the mend and the Lightning could be whole again by late next week. Boucher said Downie could return Friday against Carolina while Malone might be back to play his former team, the Penguins, next Thursday.
"Once we get those guys back and if we don't have any other injuries, it's really going to give us a lot more depth and more freedom with the lines, more ability to sustain," Boucher said. "We have a real hard-driving game that we play and you need depth to be able to sustain that. Just look at Washington now with the additions they made -- they can sustain a hard-driving game for 60 minutes."
Boucher's hope is a full roster will be able to solve Tampa's third-period woes. The coach gave reasons for why he thinks his team is struggling, but admitted it is a concern he's been trying to address for quite a while.
Tampa is a minus-27 in the third period for the season.
"If we're trailing, we're great, we have an amazing third period," Boucher said. "It's when we're ahead that we have to work at not panicking. It's not a major panic because it's not like every game we get scored on three times in the third period, but we have trouble scoring in the third period and we get scored on that one big time. That hurts us."
It hurts even more when you're not getting any secondary scoring and a superstar like Stamkos is hitting more iron than net.
Then again, that line between winning and losing can be as thin as a goal post or crossbar. The Lightning have stumbled over to the wrong side of it this month, but with a playoff berth a likely proposition and reinforcements on the way, Boucher won't let a few bad bounces and unlucky breaks crush his optimistic outlook for what still could be a memorable spring.
"The fact that Malone will be back and Downie will be back, and hopefully everybody stays healthy, we will get that one goal because those guys have at least one goal in them," Boucher said. "They can get us that one extra goal and that will relieve some of the pressure off guys like Stamkos and also put some of the other guys back in their slots on the third and fourth line, where they should be."Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer