Tampa Bay Lightning are Struggling But No Need To Panic

Many fans want to know, what has gone wrong with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning dropped another game last evening to an Eastern Conference opponent that will be playing golf on April-11 rather than preparing for a first round playoff match-up.

The 5-2 loss to the New York Islanders capped off a recent string of games that saw the Lightning lose twice to the last place team in the conference, the Ottawa Senators, and drop a game against the Florida Panthers. All teams well behind Tampa in the standings.

Panic is not setting in as Martin St. Louis told reporters following last night’s loss, “When you panic, it just creates more problems,” wing Marty St. Louis said. “It’s adversity right now. We’re being tested, each and every one of us.” (Tampa Bay.com)

Since Feb-15, they have lost 12 out of 15 games and after leading the Washington capitals by as many as seven points atop the Southeast division, now trail by that same margin. The only reason the Bolts remain as the number five seed in the eastern conference is, they earned at least one point in six of those losses.

The Lightning has no doubt hit the wall at the wrong time. It appears that their surge six to eight weeks ago was a classic case of peaking too soon but anything can happen in April, May and June. From March-13 through March-30 last season the Blackhawks, lost 8-of-11 games and the Flyers lost 10-of 15 from march-14 until the end of the season and finished as the eighth seed.

If you are just coming out from under a rock, both teams met in the Stanley Cup Finals last year. Therefore, while there are concerns on the Gulf Coast of Florida concerning their hockey team, nothing is out of the question once the playoffs start.

Having said that, Tampa does have issues. Many teams have issues this time of the year. Parity is alive and well in the NHL this season. 10 points separate the second seed and the tenth seed in the Western Conference. Many teams in a playoff spot today could be also be playing golf on the second Monday in April.

Only three teams have clinched a playoff spot, Vancouver, Philadelphia and last night Washington joined them.  All three have issues as does every other team behind them in the standings. Usually this time of the year the teams that bad-aid and patch their deficiencies the best play longer into the spring,

Most hockey fans know that the playoffs are all about hot goaltending, defense, timely goal scoring, special teams and most importantly a little bit of luck.

There is time for the Bolts to pull out the first aid kit and begin patching their problems but they must begin starting this weekend with back-to back games against their division rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes. Here are five issues the Bolts must address before the end of the season.

Victor Hedman

1-Play better defense- Tampa will need to start by becoming much more physical, especially in front of their own net. The Lightning are using a lot less of their body and lot more of their sticks when playing defense. They are ranked 27th in the NHL with 1459 total hits this season. The Bolts have allowed three or more goals in six of their last nine games and in 14 of their last 21. The good news is the Bolts do allow the fourth least amount of shots per game in the league or is that bad news for the state of their goaltending as the Lightning are a minus-6 in-goal differential for the season.

2-Stamkos must rediscover his shot and consistency- The Lightning’s leading scorer has become a streaky player in the second half of the season. He has points in just five of his last 12 games but they came in five straight games prior to that he had points in four straight. Prior to his recent on again off again production which began in mid February, Stamkos longest points drought was three games back in December.

3-Special Teams play must get better- The Bolts are good enough on the Power Play as they have converted 10-for-46 (21.7) in the month of March. The penalty kill is good enough for the post season but the Bolts have now surrendered 15-shorthanded goals (league high) after allowing two more (one empty net) against the Islanders. They have allowed four in the month of March and shorthanded goals in the playoffs can cost teams an entire series in the past. 

Team Captain Vinny Lecavalier

4-Third period play must improve- The Bolts have 70 first period markers (2nd in NHL), 79 in the middle frame (7th in NHL) and then unfortunately comes the third period. The Lightning have scored just 53 times in the final 20 minutes while allowing the opposition 80 tallies, both totals are 27th in the NHL. The Lightning are a plus 18 through two periods and a minus-27 in the final frame. In contrast, the Washington Capitals who are ahead of them in the standings are a minus-3 in the first two periods and a plus 25 to close out the game.

5-Tampa must figure out how to rest a few of its players- Some players need a rest especially Martin St. Louis and Dwayne Roloson. Roloson is 41-years-old and has been showing signs of slowing down lately. The shorthanded goal he surrendered to Frans Nielsen in the 5-2 loss was horrible.

St. Louis turns 35 in June and plays all-out on every shift but at 5’8 and 175 pounds, long NHL seasons can take a toll. St. Louis is on pace to play in every game this season and has played in every regular season game in six of the past seven seasons. The only year he did not was during the 05-06 season in which he played in 80 games. He is a minus-8 over his last five games and seems to be turning the puck over more.

The Lightning are almost a sure bet to make the playoffs as their magic number is 7 points.  The Capitals are resting stars like Ovechkin and Jason Arnott and it would not be a bad idea if the Bolts started thinking about doing the same.  

In reality, the Bolts are not the team that exceeded expectations and sat in first place for almost a month, even tying the Flyers atop the Eastern Conference at one point for a day. They are also not the team that lost to Ottawa twice, Florida and the Islanders recently.

The great football coach Bill Parcells once said,  “you are what your record says you are” and the Bolts are, as many predicted before the season started, a five-to seven-seed in the Eastern conference. 

Relax Lightning fans, your future is very bright, and bright enough to wear those shades so many of you own down there in the Sunshine state.

Owner Jeff Vinik

New Owner Jeff Vinik is dedicated to making the Lightning a premier organization. GM and VP of Hockey Operations Steve Yzerman has already become one of the most respected front office people in hockey and with Guy Boucher patrolling the bench area, the Bolts will be just fine.

Boucher always has a pulse on his team and knows the right things to say when the chips are down. He will not beat them up when they do not need to be and he will not let them get too high when things seem better than they are. It was Boucher’s idea to take the team to Elmira Florida for some golf and fishing when the Bolts were starting to get antsy during their NHL record tying 12-game home stand recently.

It seems very unlikely the Bolts will catch Washington for the division title this year and even more unlikely that Lord Stanley will return this year but Tampa certainly served notice going forward that the Caps will no longer skate through the season untested.

This was a project that many knew required a few years to complete and make no mistake about it, Yzerman will do everything he can to see that the 2004 Cup has a twin in the case sometime in the near future.

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