Friday, September 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning faces Bruins and Senators in crucial stretch

BRANDON — The Lightning emerged from the weekend All-Star break mentally recharged.

And judging from the jump in Monday's practice — which ended in Tyler Johnson winning a spirited shootout competition — there remains some fight left in Tampa Bay.

There's also prayer, with a pastor dropping by Amalie Arena on Monday to "bless" the new sheet of ice.

The Lightning might need a miracle. It's still facing long odds to make the playoffs, and those hopes might be on life support if Tampa Bay can't beat Boston tonight or Ottawa on Thursday. These are two teams the Lightning is chasing in the standings, six points behind the Bruins for the third spot in the Atlantic. The term "must win" is an understatement.

"Our crunch time is Boston," coach Jon Cooper said. "There is no sense in saying, 'We've got to win this many games, this team has to lose.' That's pointless thinking. That's a team we have to catch."

There are many reasons the Lightning is in this plight, from numerous injuries to the defensive struggles and inconsistent goaltending. Another culprit is Tampa Bay's decline in 5-on-5 play, which was a strength the previous two seasons. After being plus-44 in 5-on-5 goal differential in 2014-15, and plus-23 last season, the Lightning is minus-14 this year. The 98 goals Tampa Bay has allowed in 5-on-5 is fifth most in the league.

"Obviously we haven't been the team we were in the past two seasons," center Cedric Paquette said. "We're trying to figure out what's going on. Nobody kind of knows what's happening to us. But we've got 30 games to go to get back on track."

Cooper said the biggest reason for the drop in 5-on-5 performance has been in the defensive end. The Lightning is on pace to match last year's 148 5-on-5 goals, but it's already close to the amount it allowed (125). Had it not been for the resurgent power play, with a league-most 37 5-on-4 goals (two more than last season), the Lightning might already be toast.

"We've scored enough goals to win, we just give up way too many," Cooper said. "That's for a variety of reasons, everybody's to blame for that. But that's what we have to shore up in our game."

The Lightning appeared to turn that around on the recent six-game road trip. While Tampa Bay racked up just six of 12 possible points, it gave up two or fewer goals in regulation in five of the six. The problem is the Lightning has scored just one goal in four of the past seven games.

"It's just tough that our goal scoring went a little bit dry when our defense came up big," Cooper said. "Hopefully here some of the guys that are used to putting the puck in the net will start doing that, and we'll keep up the defensive effort."

The Lightning should get rookie center Brayden Point back soon. Point participated in his first full practice with contact Monday, saying he felt good. But he has not yet been cleared to play; Michael Bournival (upper body) will also be out. Jonathan Drouin, along with All-Stars Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov, experienced flight delays but are expected to be available to open the four-game homestand. So is Jake Dotchin, who got recalled Monday.

"It's certainly a mind-set you have to win these games because they're all so important," wing Alex Killorn said.

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

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