Tom Jones: Late Lightning meltdown raises concerns

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy looks on along with Anthony Cirelli as Canucks center Bo Horvat celebrates his team's go-ahead goal making the score 2 to 1 in the third period on Oct. 11, 2018. (DIRK SHADD   |   Times)
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy looks on along with Anthony Cirelli as Canucks center Bo Horvat celebrates his team's go-ahead goal making the score 2 to 1 in the third period on Oct. 11, 2018. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published October 11
Updated October 11

TAMPA

Well, this Lightning season sure isn't off to the start everyone expected.
This is supposed to be the fun stuff — kicking ice and taking names. Running teams out of the building and scoring goals by the bushel. And wins. Lots and lots of early wins.

Being one of the NHL's best teams is supposed to be what this Lightning season is all about. And, when it's all said and done, I still think that's how it will turn out.

But man, so far, things look out of sorts.

Two games in and already we're asking two disturbing questions that no one should be asking about this team after a mere two games.

Where's the offense? And, more ominously, what the heck is wrong with these guys?

Thursday was equally bewildering and alarming as the Lightning melted down in the third period of a 4-1 loss the Canucks.

What a clunker.

One second, the Lightning was cruising, up 1-0 in the third period. The next thing you, a bad shift here and an awful turnover there and a couple of empty-netters after that and the Lightning was slinking off the ice with a loss to a young Vancouver team that doesn't figure to be all that good this season.

"We let them hang around,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "and one team kept playing to the end.''

That team was not the Lightning.

This performance follows the season opener when the Lightning also mustered just one regulation goal and escaped with two points only because of a shootout.

It's easy, and definitely ill-advised, to overreact to two games in a hockey season, especially the first two games of the season. But, the Lightning hasn't looked anything like the Lightning is supposed to look.

So what's the deal?

Is it effort? That doesn't appear to be the problem. The Lightning dominated long stretches Thursday. At one point, it was outshooting the Canucks, 22-8. Plus, Tampa Bay showed particular hustle in its own end as it held Vancouver scoreless until the 11:07 mark of the third period.

"Guys are trying,'' Cooper said.

Is it simply bad luck? Maybe a little. The Lightning had tons of scoring chances, but could only get one past Vancouver goalie Anders Nilsson.
Is it rust? Sure, you can make a case for that. The Lightning opened the season last Saturday and then didn't play again until Thursday. Going five days from game one of the season to game two is less than ideal for any team. It's especially tough for a team built on speed, timing and finesse like the Lightning.

Now, just as a reminder, this is how last season started. The Lightning stumbled through the first two games and we were asking all of the same questions.

Where's the offense? What's the problem? What's wrong with these guys? Who are these guys?

And, just like that, the Lightning snapped into gear and had the best 20-game start in franchise history. So it just goes to show you that two games aren't enough to start turning over buffet tables and kicking garbage cans and holding closed-door meetings. Two games aren't enough to panic. Two games aren't enough to declare anything.
But since we're two games in and things look ragged, we might as well take a guess as to what the problem is. I say there are two issues.

One, the lack of games. The more the Lightning gets back into the swing of a normal three-to-four games a week schedule, the better it will play.
And, two, the Lightning is squeezing its sticks a little too tight. As much as it can say it's only two games, you could feel the sense of urgency inside Amalie Arena. It starts in the crowd and you can see it on the ice.
The longer the Lightning goes without scoring, the more the lack of scoring becomes an issue.

"It's tough,'' Cooper said. "We got to finish. We're not finishing. … You got to go in there and get dirty ones. We're probably resorting to trying to get the pretty ones.''

Look, the Lightning will be fine. It is too talented to continue not scoring.

But that doesn't make this start to the season any less worrisome for Lightning fans.

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