Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

As Lightning starts with defensive struggles, enter Alex Ovechkin

TAMPA — Alex Ovechkin is the greatest pure goal scorer of this generation.

And the Capitals star is historically hot, the first player in a century to open a season with back-to-back hat tricks, scoring seven goals total.

That's not good news for the Lightning, which has allowed eight goals (and 84 shots) in its first two games heading into tonight's showdown with Ovechkin and the Capitals at Amalie Arena.

If Tampa Bay doesn't shape up, this one could get ugly. Fast.

"We'll have to play great defensively," captain Steven Stamkos said. "Obviously 'Ovi' is one of the best goal scorers ever, and he's hot right now."

You can't blame goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Lightning's goals-against. He has performed valiantly while being under siege in back-to-back games. Vasilevskiy, entering his first full season as No. 1, is a key reason why Tampa Bay has one win, his 33-save performance Friday boosting a 5-3 victory against the Panthers. Stamkos says the Lightning was fortunate to get those two points.

It shouldn't be time for Lightning fans to panic. This is just two games out of 82. But it has to be a little bit concerning that Tampa Bay's problem last season of giving up too many quality scoring chances has lingered into this one. For all its talk about being a hungry and different team, the Lightning is somewhat resembling the group that dug itself such a first-half hole last year that it missed the playoffs.

This is not all on the blue line, though even 2016-17 Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman didn't have his best game Saturday in a 5-4 loss to the Panthers. Tampa Bay isn't playing fast enough in its zone. It's getting beaten to loose pucks and out of corners. It seemed like the Lightning spent most of Saturday night trying to get the puck back. That makes for a lot of defending, and shots allowed. On the Panthers' fifth goal, Vincent Trocheck cruised to the crease, slipped in front of Hedman and put in a rebound. Way too easy.

"Ultimately in this league, if you want to be a playoff team, you can't be giving up four goals a night," coach Jon Cooper said. "If it wasn't for heroic play by our goalie, it would be worse. Just learn from this. If players want to continue to play (this way), it's going to be tough for us. We know the recipe for success that's worked for us, and it's worked for us in spurts. We just have to do it consistently."

Saturday, the Lightning was strong for the first five minutes, as it took a 2-0 lead, and the final 10, when it pulled within a goal. But that left the 45 minutes in the middle.

A string of Lightning penalties in the first period gave momentum to the Panthers, who took over. Tampa Bay is still too passive about shooting (just nine through the first 30 minutes Saturday). And it continues to rely on its power play and top six to carry it, with Brayden Point arguably its best player in the first two games. Six of the Lightning's nine goals have been scored by Point, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov. Tyler Johnson scored late Saturday, looking more like himself in the second half of the game.

We should learn a lot about the Lightning this week, with the Capitals in town Monday, then the two-time defending champion Penguins on Thursday. Another playoff team, and potent offense, the Blues, arrives Saturday.

"Two games in, 80 to go, we've got a lot of time to figure it out," Hedman said. "But obviously to start with giving up eight in two games is not good enough. Without (Vasilevskiy), we would have given up way more."

And, now, enter Ovi.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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