Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

A mediocre Lightning team

TAMPA

What's wrong with the Lightning?

The answer, while somewhat difficult for the Lightning faithful to swallow, appears to be this: nothing.

Nothing is wrong with the Lightning.

This is what it is — a middle-of-the-pack team that likely will spend the rest of this shortened NHL season riding a roller coaster and constantly checking the standings to see if it is above or below the playoff line.

It is a team that has enough talent to string together five victories in a row but still fragile enough to lose six games in a row.

It is a team that has enough skill to pump in five or six or even eight goals in a game but still erratic enough to go long stretches without sniffing the net.

It is a team that, at times, seems capable of making some noise in the playoffs but also a team you could just as easily see missing the playoffs.

Sometimes good, currently dreadful and maddeningly unpredictable.

Here's what is causing all this confusion: that blazing 6-1 start that fooled everybody, including those who wear the uniforms, into believing this team was better than it really was. It wasn't nearly as good as that hot start suggested.

And it isn't as bad as its current 0-5-1 skid punctuated by Thursday night's close-but-not-quite 4-3 loss to the Caps.

The Lightning is somewhere in the middle, meaning a team that could possibly win the mediocre Southeast Division or barely sneak into the playoffs or miss the postseason altogether.

But let's get this straight: This is not a special team. Not at the moment and probably not this season. It's a work in progress. It's heading in the right direction but a work in progress just the same.

Even coach Guy Boucher, who admitted after Thursday's loss that the 6-1 start was a bit of a mirage, pointed out many predicted the Lightning to finish between seventh and 12th in the Eastern Conference. That's the type of company the Lightning is keeping these days.

Going on these wild mood swings of long winning and lengthy losing streaks is a bit unusual, but this has the feel of a team that will hopscotch around — winning two, losing one, winning two, losing three and so forth the rest of the way. And right now, it's a team in a funk that doesn't have any answers.

"It's not about one thing," Boucher said. "It's difficult to get up the next day, but I'm sure there will be a next day."

There's still plenty to like about this team such as Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell. Steven Stamkos, as snakebitten as he is of late (no goals in five games), remains an elite player. Victor Hedman has taken a major step and become an upper-echelon defenseman.

The defense is much improved with the additions of Matt Carle and Sami Salo. Rookie Cory Conacher looks like a player. The goaltending is heading in the right direction with Anders Lindback.

Overall, this franchise is in far better shape than a year ago and could be in terrific shape a year from now.

But there are significant issues keeping the Lightning from being able to play with the big boys of the East such as the Bruins, Ran­gers and Penguins. And maybe even the Devils and Flyers and a couple of others.

Lindback, 24, gives up about one soft goal a game, which is not unusual for a kid learning how to become a No. 1 goalie. The Lightning doesn't have a good enough third-line center. St. Louis, Lecavalier and even Stamkos are prone to inexplicable scoring droughts.

Power forward Ryan Malone can't stay healthy. Conacher makes rookie mistakes. Forward Benoit Pouliot and defensemen Keith Aulie and Brian Lee are projects. The defense sloppily turns over the puck far too much. The power play goes on the fritz far too often.

Most disturbingly, there are too many nights, particularly on the road, when the will doesn't equal the skill. It wouldn't be fair to call the Lightning soft. But the grit, the willingness to pay the price, the patience and devotion to winning ugly just isn't there.

So add this all up and what do you get? A team now 6-6-1, a point-a-game team, perfectly .500.

Sounds about right.

Tom Jones can be reached at [email protected]

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