Through the first half of the season, the Lightning struggled to string together wins and hovered around the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference standings as a result. Since Jan. 1 however, the Bolts have been winning on a consistent basis. They won seven in a row in January to move into a playoff spot in the East. They set a new franchise record with nine-consecutive wins in late February-early March to jump into first place in the Atlantic Division.
But since those nine-straight victories, the Bolts have found wins hard to come by again. They’ve lost four of their last five since, including Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the lowly Maple Leafs.
The Lightning currently occupy third place in the Atlantic Division. They’re not in danger of missing out on the playoffs yet, but if the losses continue to mount, the last few games of the season could take on added significance.
Tuesday’s defeat in Toronto was one of the Lightning’s more disappointing performances of the season. Why did the Bolts struggle so mightily against a team it had beaten three times previously?
We’ll examine where things went wrong in today’s 3 Things.
1. WHERE DID ALL THE SHOTS GO?
In Tampa Bay’s 4-0 shutout of Columbus on Sunday to end a three-game losing skid, the Lightning made a concerted effort to get more shots on net after registering just 19 two nights before in a home loss to Philadelphia.
The Bolts registered 37 shots against Columbus – five below the team’s season high – and the increased pressure on the Blue Jackets’ net resulted in the Bolts controlling play for large stretches of the game and ultimately netting four goals.
So where was this mentality Tuesday night against Toronto?
The Lightning started slowly at the Air Canada Centre and struggled to generate the same kind of chances they had in Columbus. Through the first two periods, the Bolts had just 11 shots on net. It wasn’t until falling behind when the Lightning picked up its sense of urgency, but by that point, they had already allowed Toronto to get a foothold in the game and found rallying to be a difficult proposition.
“It shouldn’t matter who we’re playing, give an effort,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “The first two periods, we had 11 shots on net. That’s not going to win you a hockey game. We give ourselves a chance to tie the game up and then we have a breakdown. Good teams don’t do that when they find a way to get back in the game. We have to be better.”
Before the Columbus game, the Lightning talked about how being too cute with the puck was bogging down the offense, how the team had to get back to going to the dirty areas to generate offense, how getting in front of the net and looking for redirects or screens or rebounds was what it took to put pucks in the back of the net.
Against the Blue Jackets, the Bolts practiced what they preached.
Versus Toronto, that mentality was MIA.
“We weren’t commanding going to the net,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We were passing up everything. And if we were shooting the puck, we were just blowing it wide. There was no purpose to what we doing, and in the end it hurt us.”
2. FLAT START TOO MUCH TO OVERCOME
Perhaps the Lightning felt past results would dictate how Tuesday night’s game against the Maple Leafs should play out.
The Bolts certainly looked like a team expecting to coast into the Air Canada Centre and pick up a win.
Tampa Bay had defeated Toronto three times already this season, winning each game by a goal. The Maple Leafs have long been out of the playoff race and have occupied the cellar of the Eastern Conference for much of the season. In fact, with just 59 points after last night’s win, Toronto is the last-place team overall in the NHL.
But with a handful of recently-promoted youngsters desperate to make an impact and earn a spot in the league dotting the lineup, the Maple Leafs have been playing better of late. Last week, they beat a team bound for the postseason when they downed the New York Islanders 4-3 in a shootout. On Sunday, the Maple Leafs went into Detroit and shut out a Red Wings team holding on to their playoff position for dear life in a 1-0 win.
On Tuesday, Toronto’s inspired play continued in a 4-1 win over the Lightning.
“That was a really disappointing game,” Cooper said. “One team came out to win a hockey game, and the other team came out thinking they were going to win a hockey game. That was it. The right team won.”
Despite the slow start for the Bolts, Toronto had trouble capitalizing as both teams failed to produce much offensively through the first half of the game. The Maple Leafs finally broke through with six-and-a-half minutes to go in the second when Connor Carrick gloved a rebound, set the puck down on the ice and ripped a slap shot that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy under his right arm.
The Lightning answered in the third on Brian Boyle’s 11th goal of the season, but Toronto pulled back in front less than three minutes later, Ben Smith crashing the net on a shot and tucking the rebound underneath Vasilevskiy for a 2-1 Leafs lead.
“We showed a little bit of desperation there in the third,” Cooper said. “We got the tie, and then kind of gave up a bad one there, not bad in the sense Vasilevskiy let in a bad goal. It wasn’t a bad goal, it was just bad of the five guys in front of him. That can’t happen, just a neutral zone turnover and then we didn’t pick the guys up on the back check and it ended up in the back of the net and that was it. That can’t happen, especially tie game and when we’re feeling it because I thought we had some things going there in the third and that kind of crushed us.”
3. POWER PLAY CONTINUES TO DISAPPOINT
Since putting up two goals in a 4-1 victory in Boston on February 28, the Lightning power play has been held scoreless.
The Bolts have gone eight-straight games without a power-play goal and have yet to score in March with the man-advantage. In total, the Lightning have failed on their last 20 power-play opportunities.
Again, on Tuesday, Tampa Bay’s power play had zero impact on the game. Over the course of their first two power plays, the Lightning registered just one shot combined. On their final power-play opportunity in the third period, the Bolts had a couple really good scoring chances and sent four shots at Jonathan Bernier but couldn’t capitalize.
“We had some good looks,” Cooper said. “Heddy hit a post. We had a good look there. We had some good things happen. We were either shooting it wide or we got a couple tough breaks there. It would have been nice. Not that special teams were the difference tonight, but we needed one tonight and we didn’t get it. So it’s unfortunate.”
The Lightning power play ranks tied for 26th in the NHL currently with a 16.2 percent success rate, a mind-boggling stat considering the amount of firepower the Bolts possess. Tampa Bay’s road power play is even worse at 10.1 percent and ranks dead last in the league.
“I don’t know what our power play is now,” Stamkos said. “We had some decent looks tonight, but it loses you games. It’s not fun when things are going like that.”
The Lightning have 12 more regular-season games to figure out how to break out of their power-play doldrums If the lack of power-play success continues in the postseason, it could lead to an early exit for the Bolts.
“We’ve got to find a way to put the puck in the net,” Bolts forward Ryan Callahan said. “It comes down to that. We’ve got to score on the power play.”