The Lightning continue to fall in the standings amidst their mid-February slide. On Tuesday, the Bolts suffered their second-consecutive loss and fourth in the last five games after falling 4-2 to the San Jose Sharks. The same bugaboos that have plagued the Lightning during their slump surfaced again versus the Sharks, namely, untimely defensive lapses, a lack of scoring and bad luck.
The Lightning have one more game at home– Thursday against Winnipeg – before entering a stretch where six of their next seven games come away from Amalie Arena.
Can the Bolts curb the losing streak before hitting the road?
Thursday’s game is shaping up as a must-win for the Lightning (64 points) with Carolina (62) and Philadelphia (60) closing the gap in the Wild Card chase.
Where did the Bolts go wrong against the Sharks?
Breaking down the defeat in today’s 3 Things.
1. GARRISON’S IMPACT
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper knew losing second-pair defenseman Jason Garrison for three to five weeks to a lower-body injury would have a negative effect on his team.
The Lightning have lost four of the five games they’ve played without Garrison, including the Feb. 8 game at Ottawa where he was injured and only on the ice for a little over four minutes. Over that stretch, a number of defensive lapses have led to opponent goals and, ultimately, have been the main culprit for the current losing skid.
“I think there’s a little bit of a trickle-down effect,” Cooper said. “He’s a really good player for us. He’d been playing with Sustr there for a while, and I think it really complemented him. Is it coincidence we’ve lost four of five with him out or is it that much of an impact? I don’t know, but it’s definitely had an impact.”
The Lightning were burned by defensive lapses yet again on Tuesday. On San Jose’s second goal, Joe Pavelski, the Sharks’ best offensive threat and one of the top scorers in the NHL, was left to roam wide open in the slot. Meanwhile, Joe Thornton, one of the best set-up men in the league, was allowed to hold the puck behind the net without being closed down.
Thornton took his time, spotted Pavelski and calmly sent a pass his way. Pavelski, now with 26 goals this season, knew what to do once he got the puck.
“We’re cheating the game a little bit right now, that’s basically what we’re doing,” Cooper said. “All the things on the defensive side of the puck for the last two-and-a-half years, we’re going through a stretch here we’re not doing those things. I don’t know, we’re on the wrong side of pucks when we try to do too many things thinking we should go up and try to win a game 6-5 instead of going back to the old adage of it’s not how many you score, it’s how many you keep out. We’re not there at all right now.”
Matt Nieto’s game-winner 1:17 into the third period was a result of the Lightning not transitioning from offense to defense quick enough. Patrick Marleau and Nieto made the Bolts pay, using their superior speed to create a 2-on-1, which Nieto finished at the near post, going from his forehand to his backhand and back to his forehand before tucking the puck just inside the post for a 3-2 Sharks advantage.
“The go-ahead goal there in the third is inexcusable,” Cooper said. “We just don’t give those up. That’s way too easy. We’ve got guys that have been with us a while out on the ice there. It’s our job as coaches to straighten it out with these guys, but why they’re deferring from what’s worked for us is what we’ve got to work out.”
The Lightning better get it worked out soon, or their standing in the Eastern Conference will continue to drop
2. STUCK IN THE SAHARA
Tampa Bay’s scoring has dried up of late.
The Lightning have scored three goals or more just once over the last five games, and, not coincidentally, that game was the Bolts’ lone victory (4-3 OT win over Nashville) during the recent slump.
In the other four games combined, the Bolts have scored just six goals.
Lightning All-Star goaltender Ben Bishop is doing his best to keep the Bolts in games, but if the five in front of him can’t score, his effort is all for naught. Bishop has lost three of his last four starts despite solid performances in each.
Bishop has given up two or fewer goals in 28 games this season – Tuesday was not one of them – and the Lightning have lost 10 of those games.
Against San Jose, the Bolts’ usual scoring suspects were missing in action, but a pair of players mired in long scoring slumps helped keep the Lightning afloat. Ryan Callahan broke an 18-game scoring drought to provide the game’s opening goal. Cedric Paquette tied the game 2-2 midway through the second period with his first goal since Nov. 14 vs. Florida.
“There’s no question I needed to produce more and find the back of the net,” Callahan said postgame when asked if it felt good to get back on the score sheet. “I’ve had plenty of chances throughout this stretch, and for whatever reason, they haven’t been going in. You always hope one like that can get you going.”
Getting those two players going again, especially Callahan, who just last season put up 24 goals, the second-highest goal total of his career, would be a big boost for the Lightning.
But Tampa Bay’s primary goal scorers have to produce too. When they don’t, the Bolts don’t have enough secondary scoring currently to offset their lack of production.
3. FADING PLAYOFF HOPES
The Lightning went on a 10-1-0 run over a one-month span (Jan. 8-Feb. 5) to get back in the playoff chase and secure a place among the top four in the Eastern Conference.
In less than two weeks, all of the hard work the Bolts put in during that run has been undone by a few uneven performances.
Tampa Bay now finds itself on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Tied with Pittsburgh at 64 points, the Penguins currently occupy the eight spot in the East by virtue of having played one less game. Florida (72 points), Boston (68) and Detroit (67) are all pulling away from the Lightning in the Atlantic Division.
“We need to have more urgency,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said after the loss to San Jose. “Tonight wasn’t good enough.”
When Tampa Bay lost 3-1 in Calgary to fall within three points of seventh place in the Atlantic, the Lightning had a “look in the mirror” moment according to Bolts captain Steven Stamkos, and the team responded by rallying from two goals down in the third period their next time out at Edmonton to win 3-2.
That victory was the turning point in the season for the Lightning and ignited a seven-game winning streak.
Maybe more reflection is in order.
“We’ve got 26 games left, and they’re all going to be important,” Bishop said. “You can’t have any points kind of slip through, and it’s gut check time.”