Anything less than stellar would be disappointing for the Tampa Bay Lightning this year. Consider that the Bolts tied the NHL record for wins in a season last campaign. They grabbed an insane 128 points. As did Nikita Kucherov. They had three 40-goal scorers, but exited the playoffs in the first round. How would they start the season this year? In a word, confusingly.
Fans thought Tampa Bay would be hungry to bust out of the gates with as much emphasis as they did the previous season. So, a 12-9-3 start? Very disappointing. Though they’ve played three less games than the Ottawa Senators, the Lightning lead them in the Atlantic division by just four points. Again, despite a four-game discrepancy, the Bolts trail the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs by three points. Needless to say, this team is not where they want to be. In fact, they are the biggest disappointment in the league thus far this season. What makes the Lightning the cream of the crop in NHL disappointments? A multitude of frustrating patterns.
Disappointing with the lead
Nothing makes a team more disappointing to view than having to watch them throw away games they seemingly have.
Recently in Washington, the Lightning continued what has been a troubling trend thus far this season. They just can’t seem to hold onto a lead. They entered the final frame against the Capitals with a 3-1 lead. Quickly, that disintegrated into a 4-3 Caps win in overtime.
Why do the Lightning struggle to maintain a lead? A lack of discipline. It was evident that the Bolts became sloppy, and lackadaisical in their own end of the ice as the third period wore on.
Turnovers often seem to plague Tampa Bay once they have a multi-goal cushion in a game. Watching a squad that’s already struggling to earn points throw away contests they have every opportunity to win? That’s been a headache unique to the Lightning in the early season.
What’s more infuriating for fans? Getting what you ask for, but in a sense… not getting it. Tampa Bay was slagged over the offseason for being too small, for not having enough grit, not having a rock’ em’ sock’ em’ fourth line capable of wearing down the opponent come playoff time.
So, Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois went out and acquired Stanley Cup Champion Patrick Maroon and former Bolt Luke Witkowski, both of whom have spent time on the fourth forward unit alongside Cedric Paquette.
The fourth line has been more than effective. They spend the majority of their shifts below the opponent’s red line, and have even contributed offensively at times. What drives supporters bonkers is that the Lightning aren’t adjusting well to this new rotation and playing style. When the fourth unit plays in the O-zone and gathers momentum, the rest of the forwards can’t seem to build on that.
While Tampa Bay sits comfortably in ninth in goals scored this season, with 87 goals to date, they can’t seem to bury a timely tally, and the efforts of the fourth line go for naught.
You can’t say the change isn’t working, but the rest of the forward group is struggling to pick up the slack. On the whole, the Lightning look like a bunch struggling to find an identity.
Measuring stick mediocrity
Another tough pill to swallow for blue-and-white faithful this year has been that the Bolts don’t look capable of beating the league’s best. That, again is nearly unique to only Tampa Bay. Most teams, specifically those who are viewed as Cup contenders, are getting it done against fellow championship hopefuls.
What makes Tampa Bay’s situation so pitiful is that they’re supposed to be a President’s Trophy contender again, or at least a contender for top spot in the Atlantic. To be that team, however, the Lightning need to be winning tough games.
So far this season, it can be argued the Bolts have just two wins in so-called “measuring stick” games. They defeated the Boston Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins. That’s it. Recent losses to the Washington Capitals, and the St. Louis Blues twice are maddening. Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper recently stated that the Lightning have to start winning these games. So far this year, the Bolts are giving fans nothing to be happy about in the regular season, and nothing to be hopeful for come playoff time.
Let’s start out with one simple fact: Curtis McElhinney has the best save percentage on the Lightning right now. At .909, he beats Andrei Vasilevskiy, who currently sits at .906. There’s nothing worse as a fan than seeing your team fail in the one area you can always count on it to succeed.
We’re talking about a guy with a career .918 save percentage, and a Vezina winning goaltender just a season ago, struggling to stay above .900.
That’s simply not good enough, especially considering the Bolts haven’t been terrible in front of him this season. It seems this year, Vasilevskiy is good for a softie a game, and that doesn’t aid a team that isn’t putting the puck in the net at the rate they’re used to.
Fall from grace
As mentioned earlier, the Bolts were unstoppable in the regular season last year. No team’s fans have as much of a leg to stand on in being upset with their start to the season as the Lightning’s do.
When you win the President’s Trophy, it’s expected you’ll at the very least be contending for top spot in your division the next season.
The most disappointing
The fact that Tampa Bay is .500 if you count overtime losses is simply unacceptable given the talent this group possesses.
You’d be hard pressed to find a team as skilled, with as much of a propensity to give up leads. You’d struggle to find a group struggling to embrace change to the same degree. A squad that was once a giant in the league that is now losing games to the league’s best consistently, and one whose last line of defense is letting them down as much.
All in all, it hasn’t been a banner start to the year for the Lightning. At that, it’s been the most disappointing beginning the league has seen.
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