Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning struggles to fix defensive issues

TAMPA — The Lightning forgot about its own net during Tuesday's 6-4 loss to Winnipeg.

But players got reacquainted with it during an hour-long practice Wednesday that focused primarily on defensive-zone drills.

"Oh, they were reminded," associate coach Rick Bowness said.

This was far from the first time Lightning coaches have had to address their team's defensive issues. And that's the problem. If you want to pinpoint a key reason that Tampa Bay (19-16-4) is out of a playoff spot midway through the season, you don't have to look much further than the blue paint in the goal crease. The defensive mentality of recent years that led the Lightning to rank fifth in goals against (2.41 per-game average) in the 30-team league last season is MIA. Tampa Bay entered Wednesday ranked 18th at 2.79.

"We've lost it this year, there's no question," Bowness said. "We know what's wrong. All we can do as a staff is continue to address it. There are games where we give up nine, 10 scoring chances and games where we give up double of that. Where's the consistency? It's the biggest issue. It's not like we don't know what we're doing."

The inconsistency goes from game to game to in-game. Take Tuesday's loss, for example. The Lightning had a dominant first period despite being down 1-0. It had more scoring chances and allowed just seven shots.

But the second period was the opposite. Tampa Bay scored the tying goal three minutes in, then forgot what it was doing.

"We got comfortable, and that's always a bad thing," wing Ondrej Palat said. "We stopped playing. We gave up too many scoring chances. It's not good."

And there's not just one culprit. The Lightning's 16 giveaways Tuesday were costly. But so was the lack of awareness by defensemen and forwards in their end, a recurring issue. And the issues aren't with just one line. After Matthew Peca's tying goal, the Lightning's top line of the Triplets (Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov) allowed a breakaway, which turned into a penalty shot and the go-ahead goal by Nikolaj Ehlers.

"We didn't play hard enough, didn't play smart enough," Bowness said. "The work that we're doing was a lot without a purpose. When that happens, the other team is going to control the pace of the game. And we just made it way too easy for (Winnipeg) to … play for 40 minutes. It's as simple as that."

The solution seems simple: Don't forget your own net. But no matter how many practice drills and film sessions the coaches use to reinforce the "right way" to play, it doesn't seem to stick.

Because of injuries, a carousel of callups from AHL Syracuse, involving players who aren't completely familiar with the Lightning's system, has resulted in some "confusion," as Bowness put it. But it's not an excuse.

The Lightning knew this eight-game stretch, which includes seven home games, would be crucial. And it is a respectable 4-2-1, winning four of the six at Amalie Arena. But Tuesday's disappointing loss makes tonight's game against Nashville that much more important, especially with back-to-back games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh this weekend.

Which Lightning 'D' will show?

"If we can do it one period, why aren't we doing it for the next two?" Bowness said. "If we're doing it for one game, why can't we do it for the next game? We know what's wrong. We're going to keep harping on it and keep addressing it. We'll get it."

NOTES: Wing Ryan Callahan had a scheduled off-day after Tuesday's return from a 15-game absence because of hip problems. … Center Brian Boyle (lower body) didn't skate and was doubtful for tonight. Cedric Paquette (lower body) may return. … Goalie Ben Bishop (lower body) did an on-ice workout. … Forwards Yanni Gourde and Michael Bournival were reassigned to Syracuse. Goalies Kristers Gudlevskis and Adam Wilcox were swapped so Gudlevskis could play and Wilcox gets a deserved callup.

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