There’s no doubt frustration is building in the Lightning locker room.
The team’s “big stars” haven’t found the back of the net (consistently) in quite some time and, after Tuesday’s 4-2 loss in Columbus, Tampa Bay has lost five of its past seven games.
Suddenly, the Lightning find themselves third (54 points) in the Central Division for the first time all season, trailing the first-place Panthers by two points and the Hurricanes by one. And unlike earlier in the season, Tampa Bay (26-11-2) will have to find different ways to win games.
Gone are the games where teams combined to score seven or more goals, something that happened eight times in the team’s first 15 contests. Instead, the Lightning find themselves in tight-scoring games against teams fighting for playoff positioning. Eleven of Tampa Bay’s past 15 games have been decided by two goals or fewer.
“You’re going to have that going down the stretch here,” Lightning foward Pat Maroon said after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Detroit. “They’re going to be tight-checking games just like the playoffs.”
Through the first 15 games, the Lightning outscored their opponents by a combined 18 goals (54-36). But over the past 15, they have a goal differential of minus-one (45-46). During its current seven-game slump, Tampa Bay has been outscored 23-15.
“We just have to find a way to just keep grinding through this,” Maroon said. “It’s a long season, it’s a long process, and you’re going to go through some ups and downs. We just have to keep trying to find our game here.”
Maroon said winning the “1-0, 2-0, 3-1, 2-1 games are huge,” because they show the team is comfortable in those kinds of situations, which it will see more of down the stretch and in the postseason (assuming it stays among the division’s top four teams).
Lightning assistant Derek Lalonde said tight-scoring games later in the season have “been the reality of hockey for years now,” but it does take some adjustment.
Earlier in the season, the Lightning could rely solely on their skill to win games. Now, in more tightly contested contests, the key is playing with discipline — making the most of offensive zone time, limiting errors and getting gritty goals — something the fourth line has done well lately (logging a combined 13 goals and assists since March 27).
“We, as a team, transformed our play,” Lalonde said. “You look at our 62-win season a couple of years ago to where we were last year, and we even brought up some of the struggles we had before the pause last year of the reality of playing the right way and what’s successful down the stretch and what’s successful in the playoffs, and that’s a simple, sometimes, unfortunately, boring, predictable type of game.”
The 2018-19 playoffs exposed issues the Lightning had covered up during the season with high scoring and record-setting performances. But it only took Columbus — ironically — four games to dismiss the notion Tampa Bay could outscore its problems.
The growing pains the Lightning experienced last season put them on track to play the right way and taught them that the boring games were the better ones they played. It’s those types of games, Lalonde said, that will matter most down the stretch.
“We have to continue to play the right way,” Lalonde continued. “And hopefully, things will turn for us.”
at Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. Thursday
Nationwide Arena, Columbus
TV/radio: Bally Sports Sun; radio: 970 WFLA
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.