The Lightning hits the midpoint of its season this week, and few expected it to be where it is: on the outside looking in at a playoff spot. The defending Eastern Conference champion has underachieved — based on its lofty standards — and is admittedly running out of time. There have been many culprits for its problems, from its stunning struggle to score (19th in the NHL entering Saturday after leading the league last season) to the rash of injuries to key players (including Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat). But now the Lightning is completely healthy and knows it needs to make a run. "Panic has not set in," coach Jon Cooper said. "But are we well aware of what we have to do? Yes. Is there heightened urgency? There better be."
Quotes to note
"We're too good to be where we are."
C Brian Boyle, above, on the Lightning's record
"Our record at home is atrocious."
C Steven Stamkos, on going 9-8-2 at Amalie Arena entering Saturday, matching its total of regulation losses from all last season
"I'm sure that this process will work itself out in a good manner."
Owner Jeff Vinik, on his confidence the Lightning can sign Stamkos to a contract extension. Stamkos can be a free agent July 1.
"There's no place I would rather be. I couldn't be happier."
Coach Jon Cooper, after signing a multiyear contract extension Dec. 4
Most Valuable Player
G Ben Bishop
There's no doubt about this one. With the Lightning struggling to score after leading the league in goals last season, Bishop is a big reason it is still within striking distance of a playoff spot. Bishop has played arguably the best hockey of his career, being incredibly consistent in allowing two goals or fewer in 17 of his previous 22 starts entering Saturday's game against the Wild, and 21 of 30 overall. Bishop's goals-against average, 2.06, was tied for fifth in the league. And he has been extremely durable, entering Saturday ranked second in games with 31. "He's been lights out for us," C Brian Boyle said.
Most improved player
C Vladislav Namestnikov
RW J.T. Brown has carried over his playoff performance into this season, adding more offense to his gritty game, with three goals and nine assists, and leading the Lightning at plus-12 entering Saturday. D Andrej Sustr has rewarded the coaching staff's patience by taking a step forward, picking better times to pinch (one goal, eight assists). But Namestnikov (above) has been the most improved, proving he's capable of a top-six role (six goals, nine assists). Like RW Jonathan Drouin, Namestnikov was a healthy scratch for most of the last postseason (14 times). But he has been thrust into a top-six role due to injuries and shown more confidence in all areas of his game. His attitude has helped him make an impact.
C Jonathan Marchessault
Raise your hand if you figured Marchessault would be a key cog on the top power-play unit. Didn't think so. Marchessault, one of the final cuts in training camp, got passed over by the other 29 teams when he was on waivers before starting the season in AHL Syracuse. Called up due to injuries, Marchessault has played his way onto the Lightning roster and is now a fixture in the lineup with six goals and five assists in 21 games entering Saturday. On a team starved for scoring, Marchessault has a shoot-first mentality, swagger and energy that rubs off. With Marchessault now waiver-eligible because he has played more than 10 NHL games this season, he's likely on the roster to stay. "He's earned it," coach Jon Cooper said.
Sure, the power play has shown some life as of late, entering Saturday having scored in five consecutive games (9-for-29) to move up to 15th in the league (19.3 percent). And the penalty kill had killed off 13 straight power plays. But both units have been below average for good portions of this season. The power play specifically has struggled, costing the Lightning games with its ineffectiveness. Remember that 1-for-10 performance in a 2-1 loss to Vancouver last month? There's too much talent on the power play for it to scuffle so much. And the penalty kill hasn't been consistent enough, most notably giving up three goals in a 5-3 loss in Washington on Dec. 18.
Top story line
C Steven Stamkos' contract saga
What else would it be? Stamkos, the Lightning captain, is still without a contract extension and a few months away from being an unrestricted free agent. Though he and the Lightning insist the saga isn't a distraction, the All-Star center says it's hard to completely shut it out. Stamkos keeps saying he wants to stay in Tampa Bay, but does the Lightning want him? And can it afford to pay what he warrants? You'd have to think there will be clarity by the Feb. 29 trade deadline, even with Stamkos holding a no-move clause. And thanks to the hockey gods, the Lightning will be in Stamkos' hometown, Toronto, that day. Circus, Part II.
Nov. 16, 2-1 over the Rangers at Amalie Arena
The Lightning had lost four of five and was facing a red-hot Rangers team that had won nine straight. But Tampa Bay got a potentially galvanizing win when C Valtteri Filppula scored a shorthanded goal with 1:05 left in the game. The Lightning went on a three-game winning streak.
Dec. 18, 5-3 to the capitals in Washington
The Capitals have been the best team in the Eastern Conference, but the Lightning led 3-0 in the second period at the Verizon Center, where it has historically struggled. But the Capitals rallied, scoring five straight, including three on the power play, for an embarrassing Lightning loss.
Lightning by the numbers (entering Saturday)
13-7-1 Record when allowing two goals or fewer (35-3-5 in 2014-15)
10-7-4 Record in one-goal games
4-12-4 Record when opponent scored first
7 Leads after the first period for the Lightning
8 Regulation home losses, equalling the total from all last season (32-8-1)
109 Man-games lost to injury (168 last season)
.42 Average goals per game for C Steven Stamkos, the lowest since his rookie season, 2008-09
.73 Average points per game for Stamkos, also the lowest since his rookie season
22 Game goal drought for wing Ryan Callahan (Nov. 3-Dec. 28). His career longest is 25 games.
Contact Joe Smith at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.