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String of series splits has Lightning stuck in neutral

Tampa Bay has found itself trading games with opponents for most of the past month.
Forward Mathieu Joseph and the Lightning fall to the Hurricanes on Tuesday, the tail end of back-to-back games. It's the third straight series where the Lightning won the first game but lost the second.
Forward Mathieu Joseph and the Lightning fall to the Hurricanes on Tuesday, the tail end of back-to-back games. It's the third straight series where the Lightning won the first game but lost the second. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 21
Updated Apr. 21

TAMPA — The Lightning did not expect the regular season to be as easy as they made it look the first two months, but with 10 games left to position themselves for the postseason, Tampa Bay is plodding down the stretch.

The Lightning have lost eight of their past 14 games, but they have also split each of their past seven two-game series. Basically, they’ve been trading games for most of the past month.

“It’s (something) we have to figure out,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve shown glimpses of playing the way we know we can play and then at times we haven’t. ... You’re not going to blaze through the regular season. We’d like to pick up more points, and we’re used to doing that, but for me, it’s more about getting our game consistently playing well.”

A 4-1 home loss to Carolina on Tuesday marked the third straight series — and the fifth time in the past seven — that Tampa Bay won the first game but lost the second. The Lightning began the season winning three out of every four games through their first 24 games.

Are opponents making better game-to-game adjustments? Are the Lightning not bringing as much energy in the second game after winning the first?

“The process should be the same, and the outcomes are going to change obviously, but you want to be feeling good about your game at this point in the season,” forward Blake Coleman said. “I think there’s a lot of us that expect more from ourselves and expect to be more of a contributor on this team. And that’s the good news. Guys on this team are hungry to be better and to contribute, so I’m not worried about the work ethic and guys making sure they’re ready to go here.”

In Monday’s series opener against the Hurricanes, the Lightning played one of their best games of the season — and one of their best in the past three weeks — in a 3-2 overtime victory. They possessed the puck well, skated well, dominated offensive-zone play and showed some physicality.

But in Tuesday’s loss, they struggled to duplicate that tempo, scoring one goal and allowing at least four goals for the sixth time in their past eight games.

“I thought they were just quicker than us,” said center Brayden Point, who scored his team’s lone goal Tuesday and has four of its 12 goals over the past five games. “They were quicker to pucks, they were quicker to get on top of us. They didn’t give us much time and space. They were winning races, and it added up to a lot more zone time for them.”

Said Cooper: “The game didn’t have the same kind of emotional checklist that the night before did, and they capitalized on some plays. They played better than us.”

Going into Thursday’s games, the Lightning (62 points) trail the Central Division-leading Hurricanes and Panthers — 65 points each; Carolina holds the tiebreaker with two games in hand. Tampa Bay took the opener in each of its past two series against Carolina and Florida, but both were overtime wins, so its opponents salvaged a point.

In 2020, the Lightning were 3-6-1 in their last 10 games before the season was paused due to the coronavirus pandemic. But after a four-month layoff and a summer camp, they regrouped to win the Stanley Cup. They won’t have that luxury of time to regroup this season.

“As we learned in the bubble and in our playoff experience, you can’t be a team that shows up one night and disappears the next, especially this time of year,” Coleman said, “so we’re going to look in the mirror. We’ve got some reflecting to do here.

“We’ve got 10 (games) left, and we’ve got to start trending the right way. I know there’s still no panic in this room. We know what kind of group we have and come playoff time, we’re going to be ready to rock. But you can’t just flip the switch in the postseason. We’ve got to start building here in the next 10.”

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