In one night, the Tampa Bay Lightning fell from the top of the Eastern Conference standings to third place.
Playing their first game following a six-day break for the All-Star Game, the Lightning looked lethargic out of the gate in a 4-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh. The Bolts quickly fell behind 2-0 and couldn’t make up the two-goal deficit despite cutting the lead to one on two separate occasions.
Tampa Bay (64 points) dropped behind Detroit (65) in the Atlantic Division. The Red Wings and New York Islanders are currently tied for first in the East.
What went wrong in Carolina? We’ll attempt to dissect the rough start to the Bolts’ post-All-Star break portion of the schedule.
1. TAMPA BAY’S POWER PLAY NEEDS A POWER SURGE
There was a moment early in the second period of Tuesday’s 4-2 loss when it appeared the Lightning were about to shed off their slow start and return to the dominating form fans have come to expect over the first half of the season.
Cedric Paquette powered home a goal by sheer persistence late in the opening period to cut Carolina’s lead in half, and the Bolts carried that momentum into the second.
At 4:15 of the middle period, Carolina’s Brad Malone was sent to the penalty box for holding to bring about the game’s first power play in favor of the Lightning. A goal would have been severely deflating for a Carolina team that entered as the second-to-worst team in the East.
Instead, Tampa Bay failed to produce any serious threat to Anton Khudobin’s goal with the man advantage.
A couple minutes later, Andrej Sustr was whistled for a penalty, Carolina took advantage with Justin Faulk’s well-screened wrist shot from the point that eluded Lightning goalie Ben Bishop and the Hurricanes were back in front by two goals, eliminating any momentum the Bolts had worked so hard to acquire.
For the Lightning power play, the sequence was more of the same from a unit that has been toothless in recent weeks.
Tampa Bay went 0-for-3 on the power play against Carolina.
“We had three power plays and had two shots,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s not good enough.”
Over the last five games, the Lightning are 1-for-15 on the power play. The Bolts thought they had solved the issue when they put the Triplets on the first power-play unit along with Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman, but that combination has gone cold after an encouraging start.
“We had such a good thing going probably first 25, 30 games of the year on the power play, and now it’s dried up,” Cooper said. “What’s frustrating is we’re really not giving ourselves a chance. We come in with a little bit of a shooter’s mentality, but we get in the game and we don’t. We’ve got to fix it or mix things up here a little bit, and that’s our job as a staff.”
2. ROAD WOES CONTINUE
The Lightning have been outstanding at Amalie Arena, winning a league-best 19 games in 24 attempts at home so far this season.
The Bolts are currently on an eight-game winning streak in Tampa, tying a franchise high for most consecutive home victories and will go for the record Thursday against Detroit.
Away from Amalie Arena has been a different story, however, for the Lightning.
Counting Tuesday’s defeat in Carolina, the Bolts have dropped three in a row on the road and have been outscored 15-8 in losses to Philadelphia, Boston and Carolina.
Overall, Tampa Bay is 11-11-3 on the road.
Things won’t get any easier for the Lightning either.
In February, the Bolts play eight of their 12 games on the road, including meetings at NHL-leading Anaheim, defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles and Central Division-best Nashville.
3. BRIAN BOYLE, THE SHOOTOUT TAKER?
Lightning fourth-line center Brian Boyle showed considerable skill on his shorthanded marker late in the second period.
Playing up top on the Bolts’ penalty-kill diamond formation, Boyle intercepted Victor Rask’s pass attempt along the blue line then sprinted past Rask and Carolina All-Star defenseman Justin Faulk for a clear breakaway against Khudobin.
Switching the puck between his forehand and backhand as he skated toward goal, Boyle faked a forehand shot before slipping a backhander five-hole through Khudobin, who has been one of the hottest goalies in the league of late, winning his last six starts – including Tuesday against the Lightning – while giving up two goals or fewer in each.
Boyle brought Tampa Bay within a score with his goal, but the Bolts could get no closer.
The Lightning have struggled in shootouts this season, going 2-4 and converting just four of 16 opportunities.
Perhaps Boyle should get an opportunity next time the Bolts go to a shootout.