The road hasn’t been nearly as kind to the Lightning, however.
The Bolts were dealt back-to-back losses to division rivals Ottawa and Montreal on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. And, truthfully, the games weren’t even close. The Lightning lost by a combined 9-3 and never led at any time in either game.
Tampa Bay has now dropped three in a row on the road. The Lightning are 10-3-0 in their last 13 games, all three losses coming away from Amalie Arena.
Why did the Bolts struggle in Canada after playing so well previously? Were the back-to-back losses just a blip on the radar, or are there worrying trends creeping into Tampa Bay’s game that need to be addressed?
We’ll examine in today’s 3 Things.
1. SLOW STARTS
The Lightning entered Canada having won 10 of its previous 11 games.
In seven of those 10 victories, the Bolts scored the opening goal.
Against both Ottawa and Montreal, though, the Lightning were on their heels from the outset, both home teams, spurred by an encouraging crowd, jumping on the Bolts from the opening puck drop and hemming them in their own zone.
The Senators and Canadiens both capitalized on their inspired play at the start to score the first goal, forcing the Bolts to play catchup. Tampa Bay was never able to recover.
“They did everything better than us, especially at the start of the game,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said following the Ottawa loss. “You get in a hole, it’s tough to come back.”
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said his team put together a “clunker” in Ottawa but had a more spirited approach to the Montreal game. Still, falling behind early allowed Montreal to settle into its game, and when the Lightning finally started to hit their stride, they were impeded by a few unfortunate bounces.
“I thought we had a good response tonight,” Cooper said during his postgame remarks in Montreal. “Ultimately, the net was a little smaller for us. They shoot a puck wide, it deflects off a skate and goes in. We seemed to hit the post the whole night. “
2. D ZONE BREAKDOWNS
The Lightning have been one of the best defensive teams in the NHL in 2015-16. The Bolts have been ranked in the top 10 for goals against nearly all season and have crept into the top five at times as well.
But over their last 10 games, the Lightning have given up four or more goals on five separate occasions. The plethora of goals finding their way into the back of the Bolts’ net hasn’t necessarily been a product of bad goaltending either.
In the losses to Ottawa and Montreal, glaring defensive lapses proved to be the Bolts’ undoing.
Montreal’s second goal is a prime example.
After losing a defensive zone faceoff, Tyler Johnson blocked a Montreal shot in the slot. He had time to settle the puck and start a break the other way, but he rushed his pass ahead to Alex Killorn. Former Bolt Mark Barberio pounced on the wayward pass at the blue line, and sent a shot toward net that was tipped by Brendan Gallagher but stopped by Ben Bishop.
The rebound bounced in front where Tomas Plekanec was waiting. Plekanec beat Braydon Coburn to the puck and sent a behind-the-back shot past Bishop five hole.
Montreal’s third goal was more of the same. P.K. Subban eluded Alex Killorn to break free in the circle and backhanded a shot toward net that was heading wide. Devante Smith-Pelly was hanging out on the edge of the blue paint, though, and the shot ricocheted off Smith-Pelly’s foot and redirected past Bishop at the back post.
Both goals could have been avoided had the Bolts been able eliminate Montreal skaters lurking around the net.
“We were leaky tonight,” Cooper said after the game. “That’s what happens, when you’re a little bit leaky, all of a sudden you’re not getting the bounces you have in the past. We definitely have to tighten that up because it’s been a little bit alarming here…We’re going nowhere if we don’t tighten up in the D zone.”
3. THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS
The J.T. Brown-Valtteri-Filppula-Ryan Callahan line has been Tampa Bay’s best defensive line, regularly matching up against the opposition’s top scoring line and shutting it down.
Over the two-day Canada trip, they were also the Bolts best offensive option, scoring all three goals in the two games combined.
That’s not a good formula for Lightning success.
“When your top guys aren’t scoring, it makes it a little tougher for us,” Cooper said.
The Lightning have gotten increased production from J.T. Brown, who has three goals in his last six games. Valtteri Filppula ended an eight-goal goal drought with his seventh tally of the season against the Canadiens.
The Bolts primary offensive weapons were M.I.A. in Canada, though.
Nikita Kucherov came into the Ottawa game having recorded points in 18 of his previous 20 games. He was shut out in both ends of the back-to-backs.
Steven Stamkos had one shot on goal in the two games combined.
“I think he had, he probably had eight (shot attempts) or something like that,” Cooper said of Stamkos, who has one goal in his last 10 games. “Unfortunately, only one hit the net, but it’s not like the kid’s not trying.”
The increased offensive production from the Brown-Filppula-Callahan line is a bonus for the Bolts. But it shouldn’t be counted on as their primary scoring option.
When it is, the Lightning aren’t likely to win too many games.