Saturday, February 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning has not been good enough to overcome its weaknesses

The fall has come so quickly, so suddenly, like a slip from a high wire, like a plunge from excellence to irrelevance. One minute this was a pretty good team, and the next, it was awful.

Perhaps you have witnessed such a drop before.

Just like that, the defense cannot stop anyone. Just like that, the penalties are out of hand. Just like that, the players are worn down mentally and physically. Just like that, yesterday's promise is today's pestilence.

Just like that, a team cannot measure up to last season's overachievement.

Egad. The Tampa Bay Lightning has become the Tampa Bay Bucs.

And doesn't your head hurt all over again?

The return to the basement has happened so fast. Only a few months ago, the Lightning was one period from reaching the Stanley Cup final, and it felt as if a franchise has repaired itself. A new direction had been set, and while few people expected the Lightning to make it back to the conference final again, it is fair to say that most of us expected the team to be, well, better than this.

Last place in the conference.

Most goals allowed in the NHL.

Also, oh-for-2012.

Just asking, but did anyone let Barry Melrose near the water cooler? Len Barrie? Art Williams? What in the name of Kokusai Green is going on here?

"We knew it was going to be a tougher year,'' coach Guy Boucher said. "We never expected it to be this tough. That comes from the circumstances that came about after the season started.''

On every team, in every league, with every sport, there are circumstances. Good franchises, deep franchises, are able to overcome them. The Lightning has not been.

For one thing, goaltender Dwayne Roloson has struggled beyond all imagination. It is as if the 42-year-old borrowed 10 years so he could play so well last year, and now, the timekeeper has called in the loan. With interest. Roloson is 71st in the NHL with an .880 save percentage. That's trouble that most teams would struggle to overcome.

Is it age? Is it focus? Is it the defense in front of him? Maybe it's all of it. Regardless, when a goaltender's play drops so dramatically he changes from an answer to a question, it's tough for any team to overcome.

As wobbly as Roloson has been, his defense hasn't helped him. Look at it like this: Before the season, you probably thought defense was one of the problem areas on the Lightning. Now, take away Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman, and there isn't enough protection in front of Roloson.

The result is that the other defensemen are overworked and underproductive, and the lamp on the net flashes like a stoplight, and the losing streak continues. Meanwhile, Boucher admits the struggle has caused a mental strain on his team.

"The minute we get a penalty, you can feel it,'' Boucher said. "Phewww. It just deflates real, real fast and we dig ourselves a grave. It's a heavier load lately because things have not turned our way. The players know we're depleted. It just piles onto the heaviness.''

Perhaps the success of last year allowed Tampa Bay — and maybe even the Lightning front office — to think it was ahead of where it was in the building process. Before last year, after all, the Lightning was a mess of a franchise, and fixing it was never going to be quick nor easy.

The man in charge of the repairs, general manager Steve Yzerman, sat halfway up in the bleachers Monday, watching his team as it practiced. No, he admits, he did not anticipate a season such as this one.

"I wouldn't use the word 'frustrated,' " he said. "Maybe disappointed. And determined to get to where we need to be. I want us to be good every year. I want us to be a Stanley Cup contender.

"I believe in what I do.''

And does he still support the coach?

"Absolutely,'' Yzerman said. "The players are still playing hard.''

In hockey, that's most of the battle. Besides, Boucher is only in his second year, and he won two playoff series in his first. He shouldn't be under any pressure. That said, even with the injuries, it's not too much to expect this team to finish better than last, is it?

Boucher will tell you that the first time he met Yzerman, he bought into a long growing process. This year hasn't changed the vision. It has, however, affected the standings. Also, it has tested the patience of those who expected more.

Last year, when the Lightning was a surprising success in the playoffs, it was easier for fans to share that vision. This year? It's a little more of a struggle. There is nothing like underachievement to drive a fan crazy. And if the Lightning is good enough to come back from 3-0 down to tie Pittsburgh at 3-3, how can it be bad enough to lose 6-3?

"We've had a lot of obstacles,'' Lightning forward Steven Stamkos said. "We didn't have a good start, and we've had a lot of injuries and a lot of games on the road. I don't want to use that as an excuse, but those are the facts.

"But we just haven't played good enough to win. We can say we deserve a better fate, but if we don't win games, it's not good enough.''

Not good enough. That pretty much sums it up this year, doesn't it?

Boucher has an analogy. Teams in the NHL, he says, are Ferraris. If things get out of balance, they don't run properly.

Last year, maybe the Lightning was a Ferrari. This year, it's a Studebaker.

For heaven's sake, can someone please trade it in before next year?

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