The Lightning have set such a high bar for themselves this season coming off their Stanley Cup campaign that losing just two games in a row sets off alarms.
Their 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday in Raleigh, N.C., wasn’t their best effort. The problem is that the Lightning can play inconsistently and still pull out a win on most nights, so it’s been a fine line between games in which they’ve overcome some blemishes and win and ones where they fall short and lose.
For a team that was the first in the NHL to 50 points this season, the losses sting more than the wins satisfy. That might be the curse they’ve created for themselves, but it’s reality. And while the Lightning could blame playing eight games in 13 days for their two-game skid, they won’t.
“Whether we’re tired or (not), we can throw all the excuses out that we want,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re a team that’s had a lot of success and we know how to work our way out of things like this, and I like the fact that if you do lose two games in a row that everybody (has) that surprised face on. And I like that about us. That’s a good thing. And now we’ve just got to dig our heels in and get ourselves out of this.”
The losses reveal their flaws, most notably mistakes that lead to odd-man rushes and high-danger scoring chances for the opposition. In Saturday’s loss, the Lightning saw a 2-0 lead disappear quickly when the Hurricanes scored two second-period goals on odd-man rushes resulting from bad line changes.
Minor penalties also continue to hurt the Lightning. They rank second in the league in minor penalties, and on Saturday they allowed six power-play opportunities, resulting in two goals against. Over their last 10 games, their penalty kill is operating at a subpar 63.6-percent success rate. Those things have put added pressure on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who faced 40 shots on back-to-back nights for the first time this season.
“We’ve got to be better defensively,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “We’ve got to be sharper. The most concerning thing is turning pucks over. We did such a good job in the first period, and then we tried to play the long game. We tried to go east-west, and it fed right into their game.
“It’s who’s gonna do it the longest, and they did it the longest (Saturday). There’s a reason why they put up 40-plus shots. They could have had six (goals). Vasy, he made some unbelievable saves in the first period, and we can’t rely on our goalie every single night.”
Now, the Lightning will have two days between games for the first time since mid-February. To help players stay fresh, the team has made some recent practices and morning skates optional. So, Monday’s scheduled practice will be their first full session in several weeks. On-ice practice time has been replaced with meetings and video sessions. As coaches find things players need to improve on, they’ve added it to Monday’s itinerary.
“I know it sounds funny, but we’ve been talking about (Monday’s practice) as a staff for about three weeks now,” Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde said. “Every time we come out of a game, we say, ‘Well, we have that practice on Monday.’ it’s going to be probably a six-hour practice if we actually did everything we’ve talked about the last three weeks.”
Even the team with the best record in the game sometimes needs a reminder of how it got there.
“This is grind-time hockey now,” Maroon said. “This is going down to the nitty gritty here, and we’re gonna see great teams like Carolina down the stretch, so we get to match their intensity and play the right way here and find our game here and moving forward here. We’ve got to get mad now, play the right way, because when we do it, it works.”
Note: The Lightning had their road game against the Florida Panthers originally slated for May 6 rescheduled for May 10, one of a number of rescheduled games the NHL announced on Sunday that will extend the regular season three days.
Tampa Bay will now finish out its regular season slate with a pair of games against the Panthers at BB&T Center in Sunrise on May 8 and 10. Those games could have playoff implications as the top three teams in the Central Division — Tampa Bay, Carolina and Florida — are currently separated by just four points.
The final day of the regular season was May 8, but it will now be May 11. The postseason was slated to begin on May 11, so that date will also move back.
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