Hockey can be a funny game. A month ago, the Lightning were cobbling together points, but the team knew it needed to improve in a number of areas. The Lightning want to be a puck-possession team. During that stretch, the opposition was enjoying the majority of puck possession and outshooting Tampa Bay on a regular basis. Yet the Lightning were winning those contests – or at getting to overtime – because they were getting key plays at key times. It might be an important power play goal. Or a series of critical saves.
Heading into Friday’s game at Colorado, the first of six straight on the road, the Lightning had won just once in their last seven games. But ironically, the team has been playing more in line with the team concept than in that earlier period. For long stretches in these seven games, the Bolts have been taking it to their opponent in terms of puck possession and they’ve done a solid job in limiting the opposition’s scoring chances.
Now, the other team is making the big play. Take the December 4 game at New Jersey. The Lightning held the Devils to only 19 shots, but the they were able to convert on a couple of early third period power play chances and turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead. Then, after Steve Downie tied the score with three minutes left, the Devils scored the winning goal in the final minute of regulation. As head coach Rick Tocchet lamented afterwards, the Lightning made some key mistakes on both penalty kills and the winning goal. But give the Devils credit for taking advantage of those mistakes. Conversely, the Lightning, despite carrying the play for much of the game, only got Vinny Lecavalier’s early second period goal before Downie momentarily tied it. Had the Lightning been able to convert on some of the chances they generated, especially once they had a 1-0 lead, the outcome easily could have been different.
It’s been a similar script for many of the games during the team’s recent slide. The Lightning outplayed Dallas on November 28 for most of the first two periods and had grabbed a 1-0 lead, then surrendered three quick power play goals. The Stars ended up winning the game in overtime, essentially because they got those big plays at important times. In Boston on December 2, the Lightning peppered Bruins’ goalie Tim Thomas with 40 shots in the game. But in the first period, while Thomas kept the Lightning off the board, Boston converted a couple of opportunities. In the second period, the Lightning amped up the pressure on Thomas even more, but couldn’t slice into the deficit. Then on one of their first chances of the period, the Bruins extended the lead. It was a 4-1 final, but it felt closer than a three-goal loss. In Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to Edmonton, the Lightning fired 15 third period shots on Oilers’ goalie Jeff Deslauriers. But like Thomas in that Boston game, he was the difference in helping Edmonton protect its one-goal lead.
The penalty kill has been an Achilles heel for the team in a number of these games, particularly the Dallas and New Jersey games. When asked about these PK issues, Tocchet responded by stating that it’s not a system problem. It’s been about certain individuals not making the right play at the right time. That could be as basic as failing to get the puck down the ice. This assessment could sum up the club’s overall game as well. As a team, the Lightning are playing their system pretty well. But hockey is a game of mistakes. And right now, the opposition is capitalizing on the Lightning’s mistakes more regularly – and the Lightning less regularly on opposition errors – than earlier in the year. Additionally, because the Lightning are not converting their chances at key points, their mistakes are getting magnified even more. In other words, if the Lightning were able to score a few more goals, then a mistake that ends up in their net might not be the difference in a game.
All teams go through stretches like these over the course of a long 82-game season. Eventually, the Bolts will come out of it – there is too much skill and experience on Tampa Bay’s roster to expect that the team won’t start burying its chances on a more consistent basis, as it was doing earlier in the season. Then the Lightning will be rewarded in the games in which they play well enough to win.
Post-Script: As referenced in the article, I wrote this piece prior to the game at Colorado on December 11. Since it’s posted after that game – a 2-1 Colorado shootout win – I’ll add this addendum. After a strong first period on Friday and an evenly played second, the Lightning were back on their heels for most of the third. So unlike some of the games mentioned in the bulk of the article, the Lightning did not enjoy the majority of the puck possession (particularly in the second half of the game). Unfortunately, as has been the case in the contests over the past couple of weeks, the Lightning again couldn’t get a big play to extend the 1-0 lead they took into the third. They had a couple of odd-man rush opportunities, including a two-on-zero breakaway in the second period, but never netted that second (or third) tally. But the game was not without big plays from the Lightning. The team got them aplenty from goaltender Antero Niittymaki, especially during Colorado’s third period 18-shot barrage. Certainly, the Bolts wanted the two points, but make no mistake, thanks to Niittymaki’s big-time performance, the Lightning started the six-game trip with one.