Fresh off of a historic 62-win season, the Tampa Bay Lightning were expected to breeze into the playoffs. Instead, they are becoming frustrating to watch.
Sporting a record of 13-10-3 through two months, it would be easy to chalk this up as a slow start. It goes deeper than that though, as Tampa Bay is struggling in nearly every aspect of their game. Even with games in hand, it’s hard to fathom the Lightning making a postseason run unless they correct the issues that plague them.
What exactly needs to be addressed for the Lightning to begin winning games?
There’s no way around it. The Lightning will only go as far as their goaltenders take them. Right now, that wouldn’t be far at all.
Both Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney are giving up over three goals a game more often than not. While it’s true that not every goal can be pinned on them, their sole job is to stop the puck. Neither is doing that with any regularity and it shows in the numbers.
Among goaltenders with at least one start, Vasilevskiy’s 3.01 goals against average (GAA) ranks 44th in the league while McElhinney’s 3.42 GAA ranks 62nd. That’s not a good sign for a team expected to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Granted, it’s difficult to make every save when being peppered by an insane number of shots. In 19 games, Vasilevskiy has faced nearly 600 shots. Meanwhile, McElhinney’s seen 260 shots in seven games. Not all of those were grade-A chances, so the fact each one is struggling the way they are remains a head scratcher.
Defensive Zone Coverage
Contrary to popular belief, the Lightning know how to defend. Unfortunately, they put themselves in bad situations by turning the puck over in prime scoring areas. That strains their goaltenders by giving the opposition extra chances to create havoc and possibly score.
During their recent 1-3-1 skid, the Bolts have struggled to play smart, playoff-style hockey. Turnovers, losing an assignment or even losing the faceoff are leading to the team spending more time in their own zone and less time on the attack.
Thursday night’s 5-4 loss to the Minnesota Wild demonstrated what a couple of defensive miscues can lead to. The Lightning battled back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game on Victor Hedman‘s 100th career goal but a defensive lapse led to the Wild retaking the lead late in the second period. As if that wasn’t deflating enough, a blown coverage by Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak gave Mats Zuccarello a partial breakaway mere seconds after Alex Killorn tied the game at four apiece.
Last Friday night’s game in our nation’s capital offered another reason why mental breakdowns are so frustrating. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev scored a beautiful goal to give Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead despite being outshot by a large margin. On his next shift, he took a penalty that allowed the Washington Capitals to cut that lead in half. Killorn did score to stretch the lead back to two heading into the final frame but the damage had been done, with that first goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov proving to be a turning point.
It’s difficult to nitpick an area where the Lightning isn’t horrible. They boast the league’s third-best power play, converting on 29.1 percent of their opportunities. However, the best opportunities get wasted.
Tuesday night’s game in Nashville provided a reality Bolts fans know all too well. When forward Ryan Johansen was given a five minute major and game misconduct for elbowing Brayden Point, the Bolts had a chance to blow open the game. Instead, they passed up multiple shots on net and ended up wasting the entire five minutes. With lots of firepower up and down the lineup, there’s absolutely no excuse for that.
After a brutal first month of the season, the Lightning’s penalty kill has slowly gotten better. However, the Thanksgiving week swoon hasn’t helped, with the team giving up a power play goal to their opposition in four of their past five games. That must be corrected if this team has any chance of making the playoffs.
Will Fixing These Issues Result In a Playoff Berth For the Lightning?
Possibly. The Lightning have a lot on their side now. Whether it be multiple games in hand, a home-heavy December schedule or an explosive offense, there’s nothing holding this team back from going on a tear. All they have to do is fix the issues listed above because, outside of the Boston Bruins, the Atlantic Division is wide open. One extended winning streak could vault them to second place in the division and, more importantly, into the playoff picture.
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