Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Scoring slump leaves Lightning baffled

TAMPA — The Lightning's scoring slump is just as stunning to the players as it is to the rest of the hockey world.

What would have been the odds that Tampa Bay, the league's highest-scoring team last season, would be shut out three times in its first 16 games, including Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Wild, and tally one or fewer goals in seven of those games?

"If someone would have told you coming into the year this was going to happen, I wouldn't predict it with the amount of talent we have in here," wing Ryan Callahan said.

But as baffling and frustrating as it is for the Lightning, it is not panicking. There is not going to be a drastic change to how the team plays, or a massive personnel shakeup. Coach Jon Cooper said players are doing "everything we've asked" and just are not getting rewarded while in as dry a stretch as he has ever seen.

"The one thing we tell our guys is, 'It's going to turn,' " Cooper said. "There's too many good players in there doing too many good things. Eventually it's going to happen. It's crazy. It feels like there's a panel of glass behind the goalies."

Considering the Lightning's daunting schedule — 11 of its first 16 games were on the road — being around .500 at 7-7-2 isn't awful. Tampa Bay did pull four points out of a four-game trip against formidable Central Division foes. But losing three of five at home has hurt, and it's a reason Tampa Bay is eighth in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Red Wings and Bruins despite having played two more games.

If you dig a little deeper, there might be more cause for concern. The Lightning has a minus-21 scoring chance differential — meaning opponents have had 21 more scoring chances — which ranks 21st in the league among the 30 teams, says advanced statistics website war-on-ice.com. Part of that is the Lightning playing too loose defensively, allowing 423 scoring chances, sixth most. It's depending way too much on its goaltenders to bail it out.

The forwards as well as defensemen have made bad giveaways in the defensive zone, "mistakes that are uncharacteristic for our group," center Brian Boyle said. "We just need to get back to the things that made us successful last season."

Interestingly, the Lightning's situation is not a big change from last season, when a 50-win Tampa Bay team surrendered a league-most 2,833 scoring chances, war-on-ice.com says. The differences are that the Lightning made up for it with the most goals (259) and the second-most scoring chances (3,037), behind just the champion Blackhawks (3,041).

The Lightning went 35-3-5 last season in games in which it gave up two or fewer goals. It's 3-4-1 this year, wasting impressive goaltending. Ben Bishop has lost five straight starts despite giving up eight goals total in those games. It's hard to win if you don't score. Tampa Bay is averaging 2.38 goals per game, nearly a goal less than last season (3.16).

"We haven't played our best hockey by far," Callahan said. "We've shown we can do it in spurts."

It would be tougher without top-line wing Ondrej Palat, who had to be helped into the dressing room Saturday after suffering a lower-body injury in the second-period when a Wild player fell on his left leg/ankle. Palat is the engine of any line he plays on, a two-way forward who plays on both special-teams units.

"He's a big part of our team," Cooper said.

General manager Steve Yzerman didn't have an update on Palat on Sunday, though that the team hadn't recalled a forward from AHL Syracuse was encouraging. Depending on the injury's severity, another forward, such as Jonathan Marchessault, could be brought up before Tuesday's game against the Sabres. Defenseman Nikita Nesterov was recalled Sunday after playing two games with the Crunch over the weekend.

Tampa Bay needs to start taking more shots. It is averaging 27.5 per game, third lowest in the NHL entering Sunday. Boyle called it a serious issue, one it has discussed and addressed.

"The more pucks you throw at the net, they'll eventually go in," Bishop said. "It's kind of easy when you think about it like that." Bishop then paused and corrected himself. "It's not that easy."

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