Finding consistency in their play from one game to the next has been an issue for the Lightning over the past month or so.
That was evident during a back-to-back split against the Carolina Hurricanes Monday and Tuesday.
The Lightning had one of their finest performances of the regular season Monday when they physically outbattled the Hurricanes and were unrelenting in their effort, despite allowing a two-goal lead to slip, in defeating the Canes 3-2 in overtime.
Tuesday, Carolina was tenacious in the way they defended, frustrating the Lightning continuously and exploding for three goals in a "bad" second period for the Bolts to win 4-1 and gain a split in the back-to-back set.
"We showed glimpses tonight, but, overall, not consistent enough," Brayden Point, the Lightning's lone goal scorer said. "We gave up too much."
Tampa Bay's loss combined with Florida's win over Columbus has the Lightning trailing both Carolina and Florida by three points in the Central Division standings. With just 10 games remaining in the regular season and both of those teams showing no signs of faltering down the stretch, it's going to be difficult for the Lightning to overtake both and finish as the division champion.
If they do, it'll have to start Thursday, when Tampa Bay hosts a two-game set against the sliding Columbus Blue Jackets, who have fallen into a tie for last place with Detroit in the Central standings.
"With 10 or so games left here, we've got to start trending the right way," Blake Coleman said. "There's still no panic in this room. We know what kind of group we have, and come playoff time, we're going to be ready to rock. But you can't just flip the switch in the postseason. We've got to start building here over the next 10."
Video: Jon Cooper | Postgame 4.20.21
1. SENDING A MESSAGE
Andrei Vasilevskiy was the surprise starter in net Tuesday for the Lightning, the goalie playing both ends of the back-to-back set, the first time he's started games on consecutive days in the regular season since November 28 and 29 of the 2017-18 season.
Typically, Vasilevskiy will play one end of a back-to-back and Curtis McElhinney will get the other. But the Lightning opted to throw Vasilevskiy out for both games, signaling just how much importance they placed on the game.
The Lightning certainly have trust in McElhinney.
But Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender in the world, leads the NHL for wins and save percentage and has a good shot at collecting his second Vezina Trophy at the end of the season.
The Lightning felt the contest against the division leading Hurricanes was grand enough to throw out their best for both games of the back-to-back.
"Vasy's been playing great, and he played great again tonight too," Point said. "We didn't give him a ton of support. It's a big game. It was a big game, and we would have liked to have that one."
There were signs just how big a game the Lightning viewed Tuesday's contest the night before. Despite one of their better efforts of the season in a 3-2 overtime win over the Canes, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was all business in the post-game interview. He didn't seem satisfied with the win, his attitude one of, the victory was a positive step, but it meant nothing if his team couldn't put forth the same effort and come out with another victory less than 24 hours later.
He did what he could to try to make that happen, letting Vasilevskiy start for a second-straight night.
Unfortunately, the Lightning couldn't match their effort in front of Vasilevskiy in the 4-1 loss Tuesday.
"It was in our plan," Cooper said about starting Vasilevskiy on back-to-back nights. "We did it and we'd do it again."
Video: Point | Postgame vs Hurricanes
2. OFFENSIVE SLUMP CONTINUES
In the last 15 games, Tampa Bay has scored more than three goals just once, that coming in a 6-4 win at Columbus April 8.
In the first 31 games, the Lightning scored more than three goals 19 times.
Tampa Bay has struggled to put the puck in the back of the net of late. Not surprisingly, the Lightning are hovering around .500 over those last 15 games, going 7-8-0.
There's a multitude of factors that could be playing into the Bolts' scoring slump. Teams are figuring out ways to defend the Lightning better, especially as they see them more during the season in these eight-game series against division opponents. Maybe the Lightning were scoring at a pace early in the season that was unsustainable for the duration of the regular season and what we're seeing now is a regression to the mean.
Maybe they were able to mask the loss of Nikita Kucherov early, but as the season's progressed, his absence has been more noticeable. And certainly, the loss of one of their leading goal scorers in Steven Stamkos to a lower-body injury that has him on long-term injury reserve has hampered their offensive efforts as well of late.
Still, the Bolts inability to put the puck in the back of the net has been a frustration they'd like to fix before the regular season comes to its conclusion.
"That's kind of been a story for us in the last several games is not putting the puck in the net," Point said. "Obviously, (Stamkos and Kucherov) are world-class players. You never truly replace those guys, but we've got to maybe play a simpler game. Sometimes, it's just reading when you've got time and space. Sometimes, we're forcing things a little bit too much. I think sometimes it's just being a little more patient to be honest."
Carolina tested the Lightning's patience Tuesday. Anytime the Bolts seemed to have something going offensively, a sliver of daylight or a chance to make a pass that would send a player in on goal, the Hurricanes were there to thwart it. Often times, plays that looked like good scoring chances would end up without even a shot on goal.
The Lightning have found scoring against any opponent difficult of late.
Against Carolina on Tuesday, it was darn-near impossible.
"The chances we generated tonight, we probably deserved just one (goal)," Cooper said. "Maybe we could have got another one. We didn't generate as much tonight. We didn't spend as much time in the offensive zone. We did in the first a little bit but not as much in the second, a little bit one and done. When you're not putting teams on their heels the way we did last night, we don't have as many chances to score and that's how it was tonight."
Video: Coleman | Postgame vs Hurricanes
3. SECOND PERIOD SNOWBALLS
Despite their limited chances to score, the Lightning were still in a pretty good spot after the first period as both teams felt each other out and neither was able to break through in the first 20.
But once Carolina got on the board, one goal turned into two and a third wasn't far behind, and the Bolts suddenly found themselves in a three-goal deficit to a team that's one of the most difficult in the NHL to come back against.
"We just had a bad second," Cooper said. "We had a bad track, bad box out on a lost battle and a bad breakout. And things that we're really confident in what we do, we just made mistakes and they ended up in the net. Often times they don't, and tonight they did. Now you're down 3-0 and you're chasing. Big goal by Pointer there in the second, and now they're defending the lead. We actually had some pretty good looks there in the third, but their goalie played well and that was it. The game didn't have the same kind of emotional checklist the night before did, and they capitalized on some of the play and deservedly so. They played well tonight. They played better than us tonight."
On Carolina's opening goal, Vincent Trocheck set up a play beautifully down the left wing to get the puck to a wide-open Nino Niederreiter in the slot, who the Bolts failed to cover.
On the ensuing face-off after Niederreiter's goal, Barclay Goodrow dropped the gloves with Jordan Martinook and fired up the crowd when he was able to drop Martinook with an uppercut followed by a straight right hand.
That energy quickly dissipated, however, when Jordan Staal outmuscled Yanni Gourde in the slot and got the slightest touch on a shot from the right point to send a puck past Vasilevskiy.
And on the Canes' third goal, Steven Lorentz got the puck out of the corner along the goal line and beat Vasilevskiy from a sharp angle with an impressive shot.
"There wasn't as much pace to our game as we had last night," Coleman said. "I thought as the game went on in the second, they flexed their muscles a little bit, and, unfortunately, we took a few penalties and things kind of snowballed from there."
Point's goal gave the Lightning life heading into the third, but Carolina defended their lead expertly down the stretch to see the victory to the finish line.