BY BROOKS ROLAND
“Give them time, they’ll snap out of it.”
“They’re too talented to stay in this funk for long.”
“They just need some time to get back in a groove after a short offseason.”
“Sure they’re in a slump, but it’s still early in the season. They have time to work out the kinks.”
“There’s so many injuries.”
You’ve probably heard all these phrases, or variations of them, uttered by fans and the media when referring to the 2015-16 edition of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, they’ve had a lot of injuries, most notably to Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, and Cedric Paquette. Yes, they had a short offseason. Yes, they’re still a talented team that is capable of scoring goals in bunches when they’re clicking. Here’s the only problem. They haven’t been clicking. At least not with any consistency. Since the beginning of November, how many times have we caught ourselves saying, “This is the game the Lightning are gonna turn it around”? How many times have we seen the Bolts follow up a rousing, dominant victory or two with a flat, uninspiring effort? The answer? Far too many.
Since a 3-8-1 slump in late October and early November, inconsistency and stalled momentum have become the norm for the Lightning. Immediately following that 12-game stretch, the Lightning won three games in a row, including a huge 2-1 victory over a New York Rangers team that had won nine in a row. How’d they follow that up? By falling on their face and allowing five power play goals in seven shorthanded situations in back-to-back losses to the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders. Then we saw the Lightning rebound by going 3-1-0 in their next four games, including winning two out of three in California. It looked like they were building some momentum again. Until the Capitals came to town and the Lightning found themselves getting stonewalled by Washington goalie Braden Holtby. Another three-game road trip showed promise with a pair of close wins over a pair of Eastern Conference bottom-feeders in Columbus and Toronto, only to see them drop that momentum by choking a 3-0 lead to the Capitals in a 5-3 loss. Returning home for a six-game homestand, it was painfully obvious that this would have to be the time for the Bolts to make a run. An impressive 5-2 victory over Ottawa kicked off the homestand, and it looked like the Lightning would finally have a springboard for some sustained success. And then came the team’s dreadful 1-for-10 performance on the power play in a 2-1 loss to Vancouver. Fans were making “decline the power play” jokes on Twitter. But four days later, the Lightning would score on 3-of-4 power plays, including two 5-on-3 goals by Steven Stamkos, in a 5-2 win over Columbus. Hey, another win the Lightning could build off and start a nice, long winning streak, right? Think again. The Lightning dropped back-to-back games against the Canadiens and Rangers, two teams that had been struggling mightily. Montreal had lost six in a row and 10 of their previous 11, while the Rangers had lost eight straight road games. Yet both teams won in Amalie Arena, a place that has now become too easy for the opposition to come away with a win.
The most frustrating part of this season has been the fact that this isn’t a rebuilding team. This isn’t a young team trying to find its way. The Lightning are a team coming off a Stanley Cup Final appearance, a group that appeared to be poised to build on that success and make another run at the Cup. Yet time and time again, we’ve seen them unable to maintain any consistency from game-to-game, and sometimes from period-to-period. I could probably count on one hand, maybe two, the number of games in which the Bolts have put together a complete, 60-minute effort this season. Too often this team goes full power plays without getting a shot on net, continually making that extra pass or that unnecessary pass between a maze of sticks and legs that doesn’t get through. Too often they get off to poor starts early in games, finding themselves in a position where they’re chasing the game instead of playing with a lead. And too often they’re just not giving goaltender Ben Bishop enough support. Last season, the Bolts were the highest-scoring team in the NHL. This year, they’re 19th in the league, averaging just 2.53 goals-per-game. In the past couple of seasons, somebody has stepped up and taken charge, whether it was two years ago when Johnson, Palat, and Bishop delivered after Stamkos got hurt, or last season when Nikita Kucherov joined Palat and Johnson to form the Triplets line and ran roughshod over the NHL. With the exception of Bishop, Kucherov, Jonathan Marchessault, and Stamkos (to a lesser degree than the past), that hasn’t happened much this season.
The players talk about how they know they need to take more responsibility and play with more desperation. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has mentioned how his team has repeatedly had chances and have been unable to bury them. Well, the time for desperation is now. It’s not October anymore. It’s not even Thanksgiving. The calendar has officially flipped over to 2016, which means the All-Star break is just a few weeks away. We keep waiting for this team to turn the corner and make a run, but it hasn’t happened yet. Last season, the Lightning had an identity, and it was that of a team that scored a ton of goals and overwhelmed the opposition with its speed and skill. This season, the Lightning don’t have much of an identity, other than being a talented, inconsistent bunch that has showed flashes of its success from the last two years, but haven’t been able to sustain it. We thought the Lightning were just going through a slump this year, but judging by what we’ve seen since mid-November, that inconsistent, up-and-down play has become their hallmark this season. And if it causes them to miss the playoffs, they only have themselves to blame.
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