TAMPA – Go back to December.
The Lightning is already on its record-setting pace for victories, but there are concerns in the front office. The defense is not playing the type of hockey you would expect from a Stanley Cup contender.
Over a 21-game span, the Lightning went an amazing 18-2-1 and yet gave up 66 goals. By the end of December, Tampa Bay had the league’s best record but was 15th in the NHL in goals allowed.
Whether it was a renewed emphasis on protecting the net, or whether it was the continuing emergence of rookie Erik Cernak, the Lightning’s back end dramatically improved during the next six weeks. General manager Julien BriseBois cited the turnaround of the defense as a major reason for sitting pat when the trade deadline came and went in February.
And yet, today, there is reason to be concerned again.
Blowing a 3-0 lead against Columbus in Game 1 of the playoffs Wednesday night might have just been another symptom of a larger problem. Over the last 21 games, the Lightning has now given up 63 goals, almost the same pace that had team officials so worried in December.
Now, it’s true the Lightning had already clinched its playoff position during much of that period and so it was easy to overlook the idea that opponents were scoring three goals a night.
There were also legitimate reasons for the downturn. Injuries kept Dan Girardi (13 games), Anton Stralman (12 games) and Victor Hedman (4 games) out of the lineup at various times in March and April. Stralman is still on the sidelines and Hedman made some uncharacteristically poor plays in Game 1.
But Wednesday night’s collapse was not just about defensemen. The forwards on this team have been around long enough to understand what it takes to protect a lead, and they failed to do that.
Unnecessary risks on the offensive end led to too many turnovers and odd-man rushes, and it cost Tampa Bay in the second and third periods.
“Our mentality has to be, when we get in these situations, to shut teams down and not to add to the lead,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And I think that first goal-against was a perfect example of that. Of trying to get the extra one when we didn’t need the extra one; we needed not to give up the next one and we did. It just gives them a little extra life and they took advantage of it.’’
None of this means the Lightning need panic.
It was an ugly, disheartening loss but it was still just one loss. Tampa Bay is clearly capable of winning four of the next six games, and probably should be favored to do just that.
But if Lightning players have hope of continuing what has already been a historic season, they need to fix their defensive shortcomings just as they did back in December.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at romano_tbtimes.