Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Face it, Lightning isn't playoff caliber

TAMPA

The breakdown came late this time. One minute, Brendan Gallagher stood in front of the net, wearing Matt Carle as an overcoat.

Then the puck was in the net, and the net was all a-kilter, and it was head-hanging time again for the Lightning. A two-goal lead had gone. An opportunity to steal a game had gone. Only the feeling that something precious had slipped away remained.

These days, it always seems to go that way. These days, another game turns dark, and another potential loss slips away, and another game is left to explanations of why the Lightning didn't measure up.

Maybe, just maybe, it is time to come to a simple realization.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the worst team in hockey.

Can we stop talking about how close this team is to the lead in the Southeast Division? Can we stop talking about whether it can get to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference? Can we stop waiting for the momentum that would salvage this season to arrive?

This is a bad hockey team, and it is getting worse. After a 6-1 start, the Lightning has now gone 4-13-1, and it is closer to the No. 1 draft pick than it is to the playoffs. Since Feb. 1, Tampa Bay has picked up just nine points, easily the fewest in the NHL.

Day by day, game by game, this team slips, one fingertip at a time, toward the bottom. Now, the Lightning is better than only one team, Florida, and that is by one point.

One point … from last place.

One point … from the cellar.

One point … from embarrassment.

Along the way, the Lightning has been exposed as a team with too many flaws. The goaltender is not ready. The depth is too young. There are holes in the defense. The power play has gone unplugged.

And the team keeps losing.

This time, it lost a two-goal lead along the way. This time, the Montreal Canadiens tantalized the Lightning, then ripped its heart out of its chest in the crucial period.

Lightning coach Guy Boucher will tell you that it doesn't feel like a last-place team. (Long-time Lightning fans will probably concur.) There are too many games when the Lightning outchances its opposition, too many times when it outshoots the other team. After a while, however, that sounds like an indictment, too. If the Lightning can outplay an opponent, why doesn't the scoreboard reflect it?

"Oh, no, no," Boucher said Saturday afternoon. "I've been on a last-place team. There were times last year, and I said it, when our play was just unacceptable. But in the last 13 games, we've had one bad game. I haven't seen that slide at all. We're injecting our depth. We're going in the right direction."

And still, the losing continues.

Looking back, perhaps it was the quick start that was out of place, and not the games that have followed. The Lightning leapt out of the gate, and since then, it has lost some of its thrust daily.

"When we look at the season, one of the things that looked like it was helping us, but it wasn't, was our start," Boucher said. "A 6-1 start created unrealistic expectations of what we really are and where we're at. We scored so many goals that no one noticed we were allowing a certain number of goals, too.

"We knew as a coaching staff it wasn't going to last. It never does. No team … can score that many goals across a season. It's ridiculous. It created expectations that were not realistic."

Before that start, most had predicted the Lightning would finish between fifth and 12th in the conference. Given the youth of the team, and of its goaltender, that's probably about right. The Lightning is underachieving, but probably not to the degree its start would suggest.

Take, for instance, goaltender Anders Lindback, who has struggled. Lindback is 42nd in the league in goals against average. He's 37th in save percentage.

Eventually, the Lightning believes Lindback will be a No. 1 goaltender. But not now. Not yet.

The year is not lost, Boucher said. A couple of wins, and the team is right back into it. How else do you expect a coach to look at it?

"It hurts," he said. "If you don't deserve it, you don't deserve it. But if you look at our last game, scoring chances are 15-8 us. Against Buffalo, it was 16-9. I can't believe we didn't put it in."

No, Boucher said, he isn't worried about his job.

"Oh, my goodness," he said. "I never am. That's never my concern. My concern is how I keep my integrity with what I do. Once you start worrying about your job, you start doing things that are wrong."

For now, that means growing the depth. It means helping the goaltender progress. It means accenting the work ethic. It means not looking down.

Not that there is very far to look these days.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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