What was once a dominant home-ice advantage through the first third of the season has suddenly shown some cracks for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bolts dropped their second game in a row at Amalie Arena on Tuesday, falling to the Washington Capitals 5-3.
Tampa Bay has one more chance to get back in the win column at home Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes, the last-place team in the Metropolitan Division (and we all know the Bolts’ recent track record against last-place teams), before playing 11 of its next 15 on the road.
How can the Lightning turn things around? Here are three areas they need to improve.
1. Tampa Bay must be ready to compete from the opening puck drop
A worrisome trend has crept into Tampa Bay’s game, one the Lightning must eliminate before it becomes habit. Of late, the Lightning have not started games well, often taking a full period before getting cranked up.
The slow starts have led to losses in three of the Bolts’ last four games, and Tampa Bay has been outscored 4-2 in the first period over those four.
Tuesday night, the Capitals ambushed the Lightning from the jump, the Caps’ top line taking it to the Bolts’ top line and physically manhandling them until the puck ended up in the back of Tampa Bay’s net off the stick of Alex Ovechkin.
“The first 10 minutes of the game last night, Washington was the better team, and it wasn’t until we realized we were in a hockey game that we stepped up,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But, at that point, we were already down a goal, and, ultimately, we ended up losing by a goal.”
Three nights earlier against Columbus, the Lightning were behind 2-0 in the first period before starting to play like the team we’ve become accustomed to seeing for stretches in the second.
The Lightning can’t continue to fall behind in games and play catch up the rest of the way. It’s a recipe for disaster.
2. The Caps physically imposed their will on the Bolts
Speaking of the early ambush, the Caps’ first shift set the tone for the rest of the game. Washington punched the Lightning in the mouth; Tampa Bay never seemed to recover.
On that opening goal, after Nicklas Backstrom won the opening draw, the Caps entered the offensive zone and stayed there.
Backstrom checked Anton Stralman to the ice in the corner and sat on top of him for over five seconds to take the Bolts’ defenseman out of the play.
Meanwhile, Ovechkin set up right in front of the Lightning goal without anybody trying to muscle him out of the way. From behind the net, Tom Wilson saw the opportunity and passed into the slot for Ovechkin, who whiffed on his first shot but slid the second under Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.
Nobody put a body on Ovechkin during the entire sequence.
Wilson, too, was a pest all night and was involved in numerous skirmishes after the whistle. His antics led to Cedric Paquette drawing a four-minute minor for roughing following Brian Boyle’s game-tying goal, and the Caps took advantage of the power play, Matt Niskanen shooting past Bishop to put Washington back in the lead 2-1.
The Capitals came out with a game plan centered around being more physical against Tampa Bay after falling to the Lightning 4-3 on November 1.
The strategy was successful.
3. The Lightning have to start winning the special teams wars again
In the last two games, Tampa Bay has given up a power-play goal while being shut out on its own power-play opportunities, going 0-for-5.
In fact, over the last four games, the Lightning are just 1-for-13 on the power play, the lone goal coming during a 5-on-3 in the closing stages of a rout over Buffalo.
On Tuesday, Washington, the second-best power-play team in the NHL, scored on its second power play of the game and went 1-for-2 overall.
Trailing by a goal, the Lightning had three consecutive power plays in the second period but couldn’t produce the game-tying score.
“That’s just the way it’s kind of rolling for us right now on our power play,” Cooper said. “That’s two games in a row right now that the other team scores a power play goal, we don’t…That’s the difference in the game.”
Tampa Bay’s penalty kill had been in the upper half of the league standings up until a couple weeks ago but now ranks 20th in the NHL with 19 goals in 94 opportunities, a 79.8 percent success rate.