A letdown against the Toronto Maple Leafs was inevitable for a Tampa Bay Lightning team that clinched a postseason berth and established several franchise records a night prior in Montreal.
The Lightning were missing a trio of established NHL defensemen in Victor Hedman, Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr against Toronto. All-Star center Tyler Johnson was also out after suffering an upper-body injury three nights earlier in Detroit.
Still, losing handily to a Toronto team in turmoil is a bitter pill to swallow for Bolts’ fans. The Maple Leafs were just 7-28-3 since January 1 entering Tuesday’s game against the Lightning.
Make that 8-28-3 now.
Before the Bolts head to Ottawa to try to get back in the win column on Thursday, let’s take a look at what went wrong (and right?) in Toronto.
1. DIRTY LITTLE SECRET
For everything positive the Tampa Bay Lightning have accomplished during a record-setting 2014-15 season, the Bolts have a habit of playing down to their competition, particularly on the road.
Tampa Bay’s effort in Toronto is just one more example.
After starting the game with a handful of scoring chances they didn’t convert or refused to take, the Lightning found themselves trailing in the first period when Toronto scored late in a power play that the Bolts’ penalty kill had dominated until the goal. Three minutes and change later, the Leafs led 2-0 when Andrei Vasilevskiy let in a goal he’d undoubtedly like to have back.
Tampa Bay cut the lead in half on Ryan Callahan’s power-play score and had several opportunities to tie the game but couldn’t convert against red hot Toronto goalie James Reimer.
When Morgan Rielly scored 24 seconds into the final period, the Bolts’ compete level didn’t match the two-goal deficit the team suddenly faced.
Asked following the game if the Lightning have trouble getting up for lesser opponents, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper balked.
“I don’t want to sit here and say we’re playing down to anybody,” he said. “It’s the National Hockey League. Anybody’s capable of beating anybody any given night…We were off.”
The numbers, though, tell a different story.
On the road against teams with more regulation losses than wins – Toronto, Buffalo, New Jersey, Carolina, Edmonton and Arizona – the Lightning are now just 2-4-2.
Fortunately for the Bolts, they won’t have to play anymore of those games the rest of the way.
2. DEPTH IN DEFENSE
No team wants to be without four key members of its blue line with two weeks remaining in the regular season and the playoffs on the horizon.
But, in a difficult situation, Tampa Bay has learned it has depth in defense that can be counted on this season and in the future.
Mark Barberio, Nikita Nesterov, Luke Witkowski and Slater Koekkoek had a combined 131 games of NHL experience entering the Toronto game. Koekkoek was making his league debut after being recalled from AHL Syracuse earlier in the day. Yet all four performed capably, superbly even during the 3-1 loss.
Cooper was quick to point out postgame the three goals the Lightning allowed were not a result of glaring breakdowns by his rookie quartet on the blue line.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we lost because of our D,” Cooper said. “That wasn’t the case. I think this is a collective of why we lost this game from the goaltender all the way out to the forwards.”
The Lightning should get Victor Hedman back by the conclusion of the road trip, maybe sooner. Andrej Sustr is expected to return before the playoffs. Braydon Coburn has a chance to be healthy again once the postseason begins and Jason Garrison should return sometime during the first round.
Add those four to established veterans Anton Stralman and Matt Carle, throw in the four youngsters and suddenly the Lightning have one of the deepest D corps in the league.
3. FOUR IN TEN
Two weeks ago, the Lightning were playing some of their best hockey of the season with consecutive wins against Montreal, Detroit and Boston.
Now, with four games left over the next 10 days, the Bolts, losers of three of their last four, need to again find the consistent level of play that has brought them to the brink of the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We still have four games here to kind of right the ship and against four good teams too,” Bolts defenseman Matt Carle said. “So, they’re going to be a good test for us, and if we can have some success, which we expect to do, we’re going to be feeling good when the playoffs come around.”
Brian Boyle said the Lightning need to put forth their best effort every single night and can’t get up for some games while going through the motions in others.
“You’re going to have ups and down throughout the season, but this is the time to focus and treat these games with a little more intensity,” he said.
Winning all four games, or even three of the final four, would go a long way toward giving Tampa Bay a boost of momentum into what the team hopes is a long, prosperous playoff run.