Friday, 5 a.m.
Don't look now, but the Tampa Bay Lightning is moving in the wrong direction.
The Lightning, one of the fastest, most dynamic skating teams in the league, is suddenly making the beep-beep-beep sound of a golf card in reverse. They don't shoot as much. They don't score as much. They don't win as much.
Tampa Bay lost another one Thursday night, falling 5-4 to the St. Louis Blues to complete a 3-0 road trip. Overall, it was the Bolts' fourth straight loss, and it dropped the team to 13-11-1 on the season.
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Is it that the team misses Steven Stamkos, who will be absent for four months after knee surgery? Maybe, because Stamkos is indeed paid like a superstar. But the Lightning survived just fine without Stammer a year ago.
Is it the goaltending? Partly. The Lightning has given up 19 goals in its four-game losing streak. The Flyers, the Blue Jackets (twice) and the Blues have taken turns clobbering the Lightning. The Lightning started Andrei Vasilevskiy Thursday night, but Ben Bishop replaced him in the second period; together, they gave up five goals on 26 shots.
Is it scoring? Partly. In their last five games, the Bolts have gotten off fewer than 10 shots in 11 of their 15 periods. The last four games, Tampa Bay has had double-digit shots in only the third period.
Is it a slump? Again, partly. The Lightning keeps falling behind, and it keeps not catching back up.
In their latest defeat, the Lightning fell behind 4-1 (three of the goals coming on power plays), before comebacks narrowed the margin to one goal twice.
But the power play got the best of Tampa Bay, which gave up three goals to the Blues on the power play. Vladimir Tarasenko had a had trick for the Blues.
“They had 10 minutes of power-play time," said Lightning coach John Cooper. " We had 10 seconds. Now you’re sucking a lot of momentum because you’re killing so many penalties, and eventually that cost us.”
The Bolts were down 4-1 in the second period, but came within a goal.
“I thought we did a lot of good things," Cooper said. "We had possession time. We had zone time. We had chances. A couple of times, we got run around in our own zone, but that’s going to happen to everybody. For the most part, 5-on-5 aspect of the game I was really happy with. Ultimately, it came down to special teams, and we weren’t good enough tonight on the PK.
“Was it 4-1 at one point? And we just kept going. The guys felt this was a winnable hockey game for us. You can’t sit there and play the game not trying to make a mistake. You’ve got to play the game with passion and be aggressive and throw the chips out there and see where they land. We did that. Like I said, when you’re killing that many penalties, and some were our own doing. We threw two over the glass. Did we have to? No, but we did. And miscommunication on the too many men when a guy was coming off and then he didn’t come off. We shot ourselves in the foot a little bit, but we’ve got to get out of those and we didn’t.”
In the end, it was a matter of Tampa Bay's slow start catching up to them.
“It’s tough," Cooper said. "I thought we should have had the fourth goal earlier. Nesterov had an opening in the slot and threw it wide, and then we give it up seconds later to make it 5-3. We had a chance to tie it on a penalty kill. Vermin gets really good wood on it, has the goalie beat and just throws it over the net. That’s just how it’s going for us right now. But, I thought we played well enough to get points, and that’s kind of how you come out of these things. Sometimes you don’t get the points, and maybe next game we will.”
The thing the Lightning has to realize is this: Things have changed. To the rest of the league, the Lightning are an established team, one that means a notch on the belt if they knock you off. Also, the Lightning is a richer collection of players; it still has to enter a game with the urgency of old. And third, there is the absence of Stamkos. Most of us have seen the team succeed without him, and so we tend to take his injury lightly.
Seasons cannot be won in December. But they can be lost. Odds are, the Lightning will still enter the playoffs without a problem. It isn't guaranteed, however. The Lightning needs better starts. It needs more traffic in front of the net. It needs solid goaltending. It needs balanced scoring.
Maybe it starts this weekend. Tampa Bay is home against Washington on Saturday night,