Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning has dug tough hole

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TAMPA — The first half of the Lightning season didn't go exactly as planned.

Well, I'm assuming when general manager Steve Yzerman put together the roster and coach Guy Boucher drew up the blueprints, the plan didn't include a five-game losing streak and then another five-game losing streak.

I'm also assuming the plan did not include new goalie Anders Lindback taking this long to find his sea legs, or Ryan Malone getting hurt again, or seeing just how many back-breaking turnovers the defense could cough up on a given night.

And, most of all, the plan wasn't to be treading and gulping water while the rest of the Eastern Conference swims toward the playoffs after Thursday night's 2-1 clunker to the Jets.

Just imagine how dire things would be if the Lightning hadn't won six of its first seven games.

Despite all the well-intentioned plans that have gone array, Yzerman says no major changes are coming.

Boucher isn't going anywhere. Neither is captain Vinny Lecavalier or any of the Lightning's other major pieces. Don't look for the Lightning to go in search of another goalie or, for that matter, make any significant additions.

What you see is pretty much what the Lightning is going to stick with for the second half, which, believe it or not, is already here.

So here's what needs to happen in the second half if the Lightning is to salvage this season and make a playoff push.

Stamkos has to keep being Stamkos

Boucher bragged Thursday about how the Lightning has had 19 different goal scorers and was tied for the league lead in goals heading into the game against Winnipeg.

"Scoring is not an issue," Boucher said.

Well, that's not entirely true. The Lightning tends to pile on the goals in victories. It is 7-2 in games decided by three goals or more, but after Thursday's loss to the Jets, is 1-8-1 in one-goal games.

The larger issue is many of its top players go into prolonged slumps.

Lecavalier hasn't scored in nine games. Teddy Purcell has gone 10 games without a goal. Marty St. Louis had a 10-game drought earlier this season.

Fortunately for the Lightning, Steven Stamkos, who scored Tampa Bay's lone goal Thursday for his league-leading 18th, is immune to such slumps. His longest stretch without a goal has been five games.

Certainly the Lightning needs goals from everybody, but this team has little chance of making second-half noise if Stamkos doesn't stay red hot.

The goalie has to steal a game here and there

No team, well except for the Blackhawks, can bring its A-game every night. So every now and then, a team has to win a game that it has absolutely no business winning.

The only way to do that is to have the goalie steal a game — you know, the type of game where you're outshot 40-15 and you end up winning 2-1 because your goalie makes saves so good that even ESPN is forced to show the highlights.

Right now, Lindback doesn't seem capable of producing those type of games, but the Lightning will need him or Mathieu Garon to stumble onto a couple.

The Lightning must tighten up

While it's true that Lindback has given up his fair share of soft goals — and you could make a strong case that both were on the shaky side in Thursday's game — it's also true that the Lightning has been way too careless with the puck.

If you're going to get below-average goaltending, you have to play above-average defense.

It needs to win on the road

Even if the Lightning plays fairly well at home down the stretch, it will need, perhaps, 14 or so points in the final 12 road games.

That doesn't seem too much to ask until you realize in its first 12 road games, the Lightning went 4-8 for only eight points. That won't work in the second half.

Final analysis

Based on the Lightning's first half, a second-half comeback seems like an awful lot to ask. It's already five points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. It's already six points behind the leader in the Southeast Division. That's a sizeable gap with only 24 games left.

Stamkos said after the game that the Lightning might need to win 17 of its final 24 games to make the playoffs. That sounds about right.

Is it impossible? Is the Lightning season over? Should it just start looking forward to next season?

Well, no, no, and no.

But does a second-half comeback appear likely? That, too, would be a no.

Put it this way: I wouldn't plan on it.

Tom Jones can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.

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