Boy, what a difference a week makes.
One week ago tonight, the Lightning defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2, at Amalie Arena. It was their fifth victory in their previous six games. During that six-game span, the Lightning had held the opposition to two or fewer goals in four of the six and had not allowed more than three goals in any of those games. In each of their five wins, they had scored first and led after the first period. Excluding the one defeat, a 3-1 loss to Nashville, the Lightning had outscored the opposition, 19-6. During those five wins, the Lightning's five-on-five goal differential was 15-3 - even including the Nashville loss, it was 16-5.
Since then, however, the tables have turned. The Bolts have dropped three straight, all lopsided defeats. They've been outscored, 14-5. They've allowed the first goal in all three games and never led. They've faced separate deficits of 4-0 and 5-0 in the past two contests. Their even-strength goal differential since Thanksgiving has been 5 goals for and 12 goals against.
So a lot has gone haywire in a short amount of time. What has happened and how do they fix it?
First, let's give high marks to the opposition in these games. A team does not play a game in a vacuum. In other words, the other side has a say in what happens. The Columbus Blue Jackets played two tremendous games against the Lightning. They forechecked ferociously and relentlessly. They moved the puck quickly and effectively, setting up players for scoring chances. And they defended well, limiting the amount of time the Lightning had the puck. In the other loss, Sunday's defeat to Boston, the Lightning had the puck more than in either of the Columbus games, but couldn't generate enough scoring chances to win. Like the Blue Jackets, the Bruins defended very well in front of their goalie.
But just as the Lightning didn't operate in a vacuum, neither did the Blue Jackets or Bruins. Meaning that the Lightning also affected the outcome with their play. And those areas are the ones of concern for Tampa Bay - the ones the Bolts must clean up if they hope to end this skid.
The Lightning must improve their team defense. Overall, that means that they must reduce the number of goals they are allowing. But the causes for the high GA number are multiple. Team defense isn't just about playing without the puck. It's also managing the puck well so you are not committing turnovers in dangerous areas. It's true that the Columbus forecheck affected some of those plays, but other turnovers were unforced. Starting with Thursday's game in St. Louis, the Lightning must move the puck out of their own zone and through the neutral zone cleanly. That means making the right decision with the puck (not passing it to a teammate about to be checked) and also executing that play (putting a pass on a teammate's stick, not off his skate).
When the Lightning don't have the puck, they must tighten up their coverage. Limit odd-man rush opportunities - those can occur after a poorly-timed turnover and/or due to an ill-advised pinch. Columbus' first goal last night came off a three-on-one-rush. Also, the Lightning have blown defensive assignments in their own end - those miscues especially hurt them in the Boston game.
Team defense is not just the responsibility of the defensemen. It's TEAM defense. Forwards also have to manage the puck well, make plays to come out of their own end and through the neutral zone, help in rush coverage by applying back pressure and also provide sound defense in the Tampa Bay end.
There's also the intangible element of playing "with passion" in the d-zone, as Jon Cooper put it after last night's game. The Bolts have to make life harder for the opposition, particularly in Tampa Bay defensive zone. That means finishing checks, boxing out in front of Lightning goalies and being hard on pucks so that your team is winning most of the 50-50 battles.
What about the offense? Better team defense will lead to more puck possession. But, as was the case in the Boston game, a puck possession advantage doesn't necessarily lead to lots of shots and scoring chances. The Lightning have been guilty during this skid of passing up shots in an attempt to make a different play, one that hasn't resulted in any shot. When a team is struggling to score goals, it must simplify its game by getting as many pucks to the opposition net as possible. (That was a formula the Bruins, who have had a tough time scoring goals this year, used on Sunday with great success). Furthermore, if the other side is determined to defend well in front of its goalie, then the Lightning forwards must be equally determined to establish position near the net so they can battle for potential rebounds.
It sounds like a lot. But keep in mind that the Lightning do not usually have the kinds of pronounced problems that have popped up in the past three contests. It's true that mistakes will happen over the course of a hockey game. It's extremely difficult to play a perfect game. But on most nights, the Lightning typically manage the puck, defend effectively and produce offense. Well enough to get a positive result. There's no reason to believe that they won't be able to reincorporate all those elements back into their game.
Also, help is on the way. The pending return of injured defenseman Anton Stralman will greatly settle things down. He's very effective at getting through an opposition forecheck because he moves the puck so well and he's calm under pressure. His return will allow some of the other defensemen, who have been asked to take on a greater role in his absence, to slot back into their usual spots.
And finally, the Bolts would put themselves in an excellent position by scoring first and playing with the lead. That's a formula conducive to success.
Right now, the Lightning are in a Bermuda Triangle of sloppy play, an injury-depleted lineup and a road-heavy part of the schedule. That can happen to teams over the course of long season. Fortunately, the recent winning streak helped them gain a bit of separation from some of their Atlantic Division rivals. The current losing skid has narrowed that gap, but they are still in third place in the division. Cleaning up their game - and Stralman's return - will hopefully be enough to get them back on track.