Okay, so maybe the Lightning really do miss Nikita Kucherov.
They had us fooled for a while. They started the season without the one-time NHL scoring champion and still played gangbusters without him. They sat atop the Central Division, and they were among the league’s top scoring teams for the season’s first few months.
But the offense has gone into a funk, and the Lightning have fallen into third place.
There’s certainly no reason to panic, especially since Kucherov is slowly working his way back into shape, but Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Blue Jackets makes you recall just how electric that lineup can be when everyone is healthy and clicking.
The loss at Nationwide Arena in Columbus was the fourth time in the past week that the Lightning were held to two goals or less. And all four of those games were against the bottom two teams in the Central Division.
“It’s a tough thing to put into words unless you’ve gone through it,” said forward Tyler Johnson. “It’s really frustrating. Guys grip the sticks too much, you overthink things, try to force things, you get outside your game. You get upset and mad and angry when things are that way and results don’t really fall. You have to try your best to get it out of your head and have some fun with the game.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper is not ignoring the current woes but said it’s important to keep them in perspective. The Lightning have had plenty of scoring opportunities but have just struggled to finish off plays.
“You take a guy out of our lineup like Kuch, and the fact that we’ve still been scoring at the rate we have been, I applaud the guys in the room,” Cooper said before Tuesday’s game. “So you get used to it, and when it doesn’t happen it seems like alarm bells are going off.”
Alarm bells? Steven Stamkos has gone seven games without a goal. Ding! Ondrej Palat has one goal in his last 14 games. Ding! Alex Killorn has zero points in his last five games. Ding! Tampa Bay has averaged 1.8 goals in its last five games. Ding, ding, ding!
This is Tampa Bay’s worst stretch of games since losing seven of 10 just before the pandemic shut the regular season down last March.
“Probably no one remembers how things were going before the pause last year,” Stamkos said. “They weren’t going great for us, and no one remembers that. And no one is going to remember this if we can get out of it and go and play our game.
“It’s the course of a season, things are going to go well and things aren’t going to go well. It’s the teams that can figure it out and stick together and stay positive, and this group certainly has that makeup.”
It didn’t help that Tampa Bay had to face Columbus in the midst of this scoring drought.
There’s not another team in the league that has given the Lightning such a difficult time this season. Columbus has an unsightly 2-7 record since March 20, and yet both victories are against Tampa Bay. The Blue Jackets are in sixth place in the Central Division, and yet they are the only team with a winning record against the Lightning in 2021.
In their last 15 meetings, including the postseason, the Blue Jackets have gone 8-7 against the Lightning and outscored them 48-35.
Just like nearly every other game in recent weeks, the Lightning had to depend on their fourth line for their scoring. Tampa Bay was down 4-0 halfway through the third period when Ross Colton finally put the puck in the net for his fifth goal in 13 games this season.
“When scoring dries up a little bit, you’re looking for answers,” Cooper said. “The big thing is, when that is happening, you can’t change your game. And that’s the hard part for any athlete. Their heart is in the right place and they want to do the right thing, and then you start pressing and maybe it takes you out of your structure a little bit.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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