Monday, October 15, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning has plenty to work on

TAMPA — The Lightning doesn't play again until Thursday. Good thing because it could sure use the practice.

Tampa Bay collected two points in Saturday's season opener, a 2-1 shootout victory against the Panthers.

That's the best thing and maybe the only good thing that can be gleaned from an other­wise ragged performance.

Now, let's be perfectly clear. This isn't football. It's hockey.

They play 82 of these things, so you can't overreact to one game. Anyone who knows the difference between a blue line and clothes line knows that in hockey, you can't take one game and make the determination of how good or bad a team is, like you often can in football.

Even the best hockey teams will have flat performances and off nights.

Now having said all that, the Lightning, on Saturday, looked a little flat and a little off.

It happens.

In fact, it happened last season.

The Lightning also opened last season against the Panthers. And that game had a similar theme as this season's opener. The Lightning was outshot, outplayed and outhustled, and it still ended up winning.

In last year's second game, also against the Panthers, the Lightning was pathetic in a 5-4 loss. Two games into the season and panic started to creep in among fans. Two games in and there were already doubts and questions about the Lightning.

Then it went on to win eight of its next nine and turned out to be one of the league's top teams.

So don't expect coach Jon Cooper to start chewing fingernails already just because his team wasn't perfect Saturday night.

"All I know is we won,'' Cooper said. "This is a really tough league to win in, and we'll take the points any way we can get them. Do we have stuff to clean up? I think I've listened to every single coach in the league's press conference and they all say, 'We did pretty well, but we got a lot a long ways to go.' So I'll just say everything they've been saying.''

And now the Lightning can go back to the drawing board with four days between games.

"We'll take (the points),'' Cooper said, "and move on and have another training camp until our next game.''

So what will the Lightning work on in this abbreviated second training camp before Thursday?

Start with discipline. The lack of it nearly cost the team two points Saturday.

"The Achilles' heel was you can't take three penalties in the third period,'' Cooper said. "Then it kind of fell back into the trap of not skating and turning pucks over. So that's something we're obviously going to have to address now.''

What else is there to address?

A bizarre lack of scoring on a team that has an overabundance of elite scorers.

Okay, so what happens at the end of one season has nothing to do with the start of the next season. Still, there was one stat that stood out as the Panthers carried a 1-0 lead into the third period Saturday.

The Lightning hadn't scored a goal in a game that counted since 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5 of last spring's Eastern Conference final against the Capitals. Tampa Bay was shut out the rest of that Game 5, all of Games 6 and 7, and for the first two periods of Saturday's opener. When Anthony Cirelli finally scored a shorthanded goal midway though the third period, it snapped a scoreless drought of 210 minutes and 12 seconds.

As far as Saturday, it wasn't as if the Lightning ran into a hot goalie. It simply didn't generate enough scoring chances. Of the Lightning's 29 shots Saturday, 14 came from defensemen. Much of the game was a series of one-and-done scoring attempts with almost no sustained pressure.

Meantime, not only did Nikita Kucherov have no shots on goal, he only attempted two shots in 23 shifts and nearly 23 minutes of ice time. At times Saturday, he and linemate Steven Stamkos were too unselfish and seemed more interested in passing to each other than taking a shot.

Again, it's just one game. Let's not suddenly predict that two guys who combined for 66 goals and 186 points last season suddenly forgot how to play offensive hockey. And, let's not forget, in true Kucherov fashion, he can still show up in time to play the star in a game when he is often invisible. It was his nifty shootout goal that won the game.

But if the Lightning is going to get off to another hot start like last season, it will need better play from Kucherov and Stamkos.

Scratch that.

It will need better from the entire team.

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