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Lightning have taken a step back, and that may be a good thing

John Romano | Compared to last season, Tampa Bay is giving up more goals and scoring less. But it’s part of a transition to becoming a more disciplined team with a more balanced approach.
The Lightning is working too avoid too many scenes like this, when goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was sprawled on the ice after a St. Louis power play goal Wednesday night. While figuring out how to tone down too many high-risk plays on offense, Tampa Bay is giving up 3.27 goals per game, which is above the league average of 3.04. [DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times]
The Lightning is working too avoid too many scenes like this, when goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was sprawled on the ice after a St. Louis power play goal Wednesday night. While figuring out how to tone down too many high-risk plays on offense, Tampa Bay is giving up 3.27 goals per game, which is above the league average of 3.04. [DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 29, 2019

TAMPA — Forget the record. While we’re at it, forget the standings, too.

If you’re overly concerned about the Lightning being in the bottom half of the Atlantic Division this morning, allow me to point out the NHL standings on this exact date last year.

The four division leaders were Nashville, Calgary, Buffalo and Washington. Buffalo didn’t make the playoffs; none of the other three teams advanced past the first round. Boston, the eventual Eastern Conference champion, was in fourth place. St. Louis, the eventual Stanley Cup champion, was in last place.

We have gotten so used to the Lightning dominating the regular season — they won 116 games the previous two years and no one else in the Eastern Conference even cracked 100 — that a slow start in October and November seems worthy of your unease. Relax, it’s not.

Instead, consider the path the Lightning have taken to get to this point.

Related: RELATED: Where are the Lightning at the season’s quarter mark?

This a team undergoing change. Not a remaking of the roster. And not a wholesale change in philosophy. Tampa Bay remains a high-skill, high-scoring, fast-paced team. The difference is the Lightning is trying to add a little more discipline and defensive balance to the equation.

So is it working?

Not really. Not yet.

If the Lightning do not beat Washington tonight, it will be their 11th loss (in regulation, overtime and shootouts) in 23 games. They did not lose their 11th game last season until Jan. 13 in their 46th game.

The Lightning were slightly better than league average when it came to giving up goals last season. So far this year, they’re slightly worse. And what’s made it even more complicated is the Lightning have sacrificed some of their scoring opportunities while working out the defensive kinks.

Giving up more goals while scoring fewer goals is a pretty simple way to take a nose dive in the standings.

Yet none of this means it’s a failed plan. It’s still a work in progress. And there are other factors that go into play here.

Related: RELATED: How Anthony Cirelli drives the Lightning

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy made the Tampa Bay defense look better than it really was last season. He hasn’t been quite as impressive during the first two months of this season. When Vasilevskiy’s level of play rises, so will the Lightning’s place in the standings.

Tampa Bay has also made it harder on itself by taking too many penalties. The Lightning are third in the NHL in penalty minutes per game, which is also where they finished last year. They were also third in 2016-17. That’s a pretty long history of putting themselves in the hole, and it needs to be corrected.

But the point is these are fixable problems. They are not due to a lack of talent.

Lightning players are simply trying to find that balance between their normal quick-paced offense and the need to cut down on unnecessary risks that lead to easy scoring opportunities for opponents.

“Everyone knows in this room what it takes to win,” said forward Pat Maroon. “It’s just the attention to details. Sometimes you get away from it, but you have to do it for a full 60 minutes. You have to do it for 82 games. These 82 games are a dress rehearsal for the playoffs. You have to find ways to manage it now, and when you get in the playoffs, you find ways to continue it. It becomes natural to you as a player and as a team.”

The emphasis on a more balanced offensive-defensive approach may have also had an inadvertent effect on the scoring distribution. Like last season, the Lightning are near the top of the league in scoring. Yet unlike last year, no individual players are close to the league lead.

Related: RELATED: Lightning’s Steven Stamkos could play this weekend

After finishing tied for sixth in goals in 2018-19, neither Nikita Kucherov nor Brayden Point are in the top 40 after the first quarter of this season. Kucherov, Point and Steven Stamkos accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team’s goals last year. This year they’re slightly under 30 percent.

“I think that can help us in the long run,’’ said forward Mathieu Joseph. “You need that depth, you need everyone playing consistently. The longer the season goes on, the more you’re going to see how you gain from this.’’

In the end, that’s what this is all about.

The Lightning were the clear winner of the past two regular seasons, but they went 11-10 in the past two postseasons. They’ve won enough awards and compiled enough impressive statistics. The emphasis now is to figure out the style needed to take a step forward in the playoffs.

Even if it means a step backward in October and November.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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