The Tampa Bay Lightning are in a funk. As they prepare for another first-round playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Lightning have lost four in a row in regulation for the first time in more than three years.
Tampa Bay’s malaise stretches back to the all-star break. Since Feb. 6, the Lightning are 10-11-5 — a .481 points percentage that ranks 22nd in the NHL over that span. After years of post-season dominance, it appears that the Lightning are ripe for a letdown.
Or are they?
At the break, when the Lightning were 32-15-1, they ranked fourth in both actual (3.63) and expected (3.22) goals per game in all situations, thanks in large part to their dynamic power play, which had scored on 26.7 per cent of its opportunities. At 5-on-5, they were fifth (2.27) and seventh (2.01) in those respective categories.
Over the past several weeks, however, Tampa Bay has struggled to cash in on its scoring chances, especially at even strength. The Lightning are 27th in 5-on-5 goals per game (1.77) since Feb. 6. Shot quality has also slipped to 1.86 xGF per game — tied for 17th.
Health is not to blame for the Lightning’s recent issues. None of their core players have missed more than a couple of games since early February, and most of them are still performing at a high level. Brayden Point is tied for fifth in goals (16) and sixth in scoring chances (82) since the schedule resumed. His linemate, Nikita Kucherov, has continued putting the puck where it needs to be, sharing the league lead in completed slot passes with the Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner (88) over the past two months. Kucherov’s 21 assists in this span are tied for sixth in the league.
The Lightning’s depth up front is what has separated them from their competition in recent seasons. Coach Jon Cooper is still searching for the right mix in his bottom six. Tanner Jeannot, acquired at the trade deadline from the Nashville Predators for five draft picks and defenceman Cal Foote, was supposed to help there, much like Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow before him. But Jeannot has not found a consistent home with the Lightning, who have been outscored 10-3 with him on the ice at 5-on-5. He has zero goals and 11 scoring chances in 15 games.
Cooper has also been tinkering with his defence. For years, Tampa Bay had a set-it-and-forget-it defensive corps. Victor Hedman played with Jan Rutta, and Ryan McDonagh played with Erik Cernak. The Lightning have been looking for the optimal partner for Hedman throughout the season, but have not landed on one. Hedman’s most frequent partner since the all-star break has been Zach Bogosian — a combination that has a 43.1 xGF% in 145:23 of even-strength ice time.
Although it is difficult to quantify, fatigue almost certainly has had an effect on the Lightning. Their 26 games since the all-star break — played over the course of 48 days — are tied for the most in the league. In that time, Tampa Bay has had six sets of back-to-back games, going 0-4-2 in the second halves of those sets.
A first-round series between Toronto and Tampa Bay has been a near certainty for several months. Teams want to be playing their best hockey down the stretch, but season-ending skids are not always signs of things to come in the playoffs. The Colorado Avalanche, for example, lost six of their final seven regular-season games last season before winning 16 of 20 during their run to the Stanley Cup.
If any team is capable of flipping a switch when the stakes are raised, it is the Lightning. Write them off at your own risk.
All stats from Sportlogiq