CHICAGO — When the epitaph is finally written on this Lightning season, there will be many reasons it could be done in April instead of June.
There are the massive injuries. Tampa Bay has played most of the year without captain Steven Stamkos (knee surgery), having to use 34 players. Now an illness is spreading through the team, with defenseman Jason Garrison likely out again tonight against the Blackhawks. The defense has also continued to regress, the Lightning getting outscored 96-80 in 5-on-5.
But the most surprising factor in the Lightning's slide to the Eastern Conference cellar has been its untimely struggles in net. Tampa Bay opened the season the envy of teams with its goaltending tandem of Ben Bishop, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the future No. 1. Both, however, have not played up to even their own standards, the combined 2.92 goals against per game 24th in the league.
"It's been kind of an up and down season," Bishop said.
"It's up and down," Vasilevskiy agreed.
To be fair, Bishop and Vasilevskiy have mirrored the inconsistencies of the team, which hasn't played well in front of them. Last season, Bishop masked the team's deficiencies with a career year.
"If it weren't for him, (Tampa Bay) would have been a lottery team," said Bobby "The Chief" Taylor, Fox Sports Sun Lightning analyst.
This season, Bishop hasn't been as sharp, and too many bad goals have come at critical times, especially on this make-or-break road trip. From the Ryan Getzlaf tying goal in Anaheim on Tuesday — when Bishop left the crease thinking the Lightning had cleared the zone — to the first two in Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Coyotes, it's costing the Lightning critical points.
"The key thing is, you can make the great save, but when you give up a routine goal, that deflates the team, it just kills you," said Taylor, a former longtime NHL backup goalie. "Those bad goals will always come back to haunt you."
On the Sharks' go-ahead goal in Thursday's 2-1 win over Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy said he lost the puck for a second and Logan Couture slipped a soft shot through his legs. "I was so surprised he shot it," Vasilevskiy said. "That's the price when you lose your focus for a second."
Bishop had been such a model of consistency the past three seasons, which has made this dropoff a bit of a surprise. He has gone from the best goals-against average in the league last season (2.06) to 30th (2.78). Bishop's save percentage (.905) is 32nd, behind Vasilevskiy (.907).
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Bishop, this being the final year of his contract. He was nearly dealt to Calgary at the June NHL draft, and his name will be mentioned in trade rumors until the March 1 deadline. Bishop has said that hasn't impacted him. He has been there before, traded twice in his career. Bishop has been a victim of some weird bounces, especially earlier this season. But Bishop has to be better for the Lightning to go on a run.
"Obviously we've got half the season left," Bishop said. "So it's important to have a really good finish."
Vasilevskiy, who signed a three-year extension in July, got off to such a hot start to begin the season. But Vasilevskiy scuffled during his nine-game stint as No. 1 when Bishop was out hurt, going 3-5-1 with a 3.78 goals against. Vasilevskiy lamented some "stupid goals" he has allowed, including a couple in a home loss to Nashville Jan. 5. The first two Bishop gave up Saturday, both beating him short-side from bad angles, were "horrible," Taylor said. But Taylor gives the Lightning goaltending a "B" grade.
"Questionable goals have gone in at the wrong time of the game,' Taylor said. "And with (the Lightning's) inability to score for a while, it just magnifies it."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSMith.