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A look at what’s been missing for the Lightning in recent slump

A protocol hangover, falling behind early and better competition certainly have made life difficult for Tampa Bay since the holiday break.
Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin (10) gets held by Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta (44) on Friday. Tampa Bay had little luck against New York in the last two games.
Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin (10) gets held by Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta (44) on Friday. Tampa Bay had little luck against New York in the last two games. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press ]
Published Jan. 3
Updated Jan. 4

Several factors have gone into the Lightning’s three-game winless streak. The results have been lopsided, with Tampa Bay outscored 17-6 over that span.

Since returning from the holiday break, the lineup has been in daily flux while players move in and out of COVID-19 protocol. They have played uncharacteristically sloppy hockey, especially in Thursday’s 9-3 loss to the Panthers in Sunrise. Tampa Bay eked out a point at home Friday in a shootout loss to the Rangers, but were shut out 4-0 by that same team Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

“Call it a funk, call it a slump, I don’t know,” coach Jon Cooper said following Monday’s practice in Columbus. “But I like the fact that when you only get one point out of (three) games, alarms are going off. And that’s the sign of a team that’s used to winning and winning a lot. ... I’ve got no doubt these guys will be back.”

With the help of Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom, we delve into what’s been going wrong with the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

Returning players out of sync

No one doubts that having goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy back in the lineup is a boon, but he said it may still take him a bit to get fully re-acclimated.
No one doubts that having goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy back in the lineup is a boon, but he said it may still take him a bit to get fully re-acclimated. [ RICH SCHULTZ | Associated Press ]

Hockey players are creatures of habit, and there might be no player in the Lightning’s locker room more disciplined in his routine than Andrei Vasilevskiy. Getting Vasilevskiy back in net Sunday was fortuitous, but even the best goalie in the world was rusty after not being able to skate while he was in protocol. Vasilevskiy worked out on his own, but said nothing can replace ice time, and admitted Monday that he still probably will need another day or two to feel like himself again.

“I did my best to stay in shape, but at the same time, it’s very hard when you do not skate for 10, 11 days. It was pretty tough,” he said. Vasilevskiy certainly wasn’t the only player affected, and Cooper made it clear he thought some returning players lacked timing and stamina.

“We’ve had a lot of situations with a lot of guys coming in and out,” Engblom said. “And so that can really add to the out-of-sync feeling and players are a little off. Even your top players are not quite as good as they normally are, and that’s a big difference. …

“When you’re not out there, in practice, you don’t have the rhythm or flow to your game. (Anthony) Cirelli didn’t have it. Vasy didn’t have it. There were some goals that Vasy would have had. He’s human like everybody else, although sometimes I think he’s not.”

Chasing the game after early deficits

Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) places the puck on the ice in front of Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba (8) and center Mika Zibanejad (93) Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) places the puck on the ice in front of Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba (8) and center Mika Zibanejad (93) Sunday at Madison Square Garden. [ RICH SCHULTZ | Associated Press ]

On the road at the Panthers and Rangers, the Lightning fell behind 3-0 less than 15 minutes into the games. Against Florida, the Lightning couldn’t shore up their own end defensively and left Panthers players unchecked in prime scoring areas. Combine that with two AHL callups in net, and it led to a rout. They were chasing a lead and failing miserably.

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“In the two big losses, they got so disjointed in their own zone, it was crazy,” Engblom said. “In the nine-goal game the breakdown between the forwards and the D was phenomenal, like nothing we’ve seen for a very long time. When things are going bad, you start to think, ‘OK, I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to do more.’ And then what happens is you start running around more and more. It’s like you’re running around putting out fires, and next thing you know, it’s burning in the spot you were supposed to be.”

Better competition

Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau (11) celebrates after scoring a goal during the first period Thursday in Sunrise.
Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau (11) celebrates after scoring a goal during the first period Thursday in Sunrise. [ LYNNE SLADKY | Associated Press ]

The Lightning’s final game before the break, a road win in Vegas on Dec. 21, might have given them a false sense of confidence, especially since it put them on top of the league standings. And certainly the Canadiens — the first team they faced and beat after the break — aren’t the same team the Lightning dispatched in the Cup final in July.

But a proven Panthers team and an improved Rangers club provided the Lightning with a gut check. Both teams are legitimate contenders and are just behind Tampa Bay in the standings.

“It starts there,” Engblom said. “You make some mistakes against them compared to a couple of the teams at the bottom of the batting order — you’re not going to pay a price. But when you have good teams like that, when you get loose and a little reckless, you give them chances, they score. And now you see the difference in the flow of the game. They’ve got talented players who are really feeling it.”

Ghosts of championships past

Rangers center Barclay Goodrow (21) celebrates his goal against the Lightning with defenseman K'Andre Miller (79), defenseman Jacob Trouba (8), and center Greg McKegg on Friday in Tampa.
Rangers center Barclay Goodrow (21) celebrates his goal against the Lightning with defenseman K'Andre Miller (79), defenseman Jacob Trouba (8), and center Greg McKegg on Friday in Tampa. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press ]

Cooper actually wasn’t disappointed in the Lightning’s two winless games against the Rangers. But in both, former Lightning forward Barclay Goodrow was one of the best players on the ice. Goodrow scored two goals in the first game and forced a turnover from the typically sure-handed Cirelli that led to the Rangers’ third goal Sunday. There are few opponents who know how the Lightning win better than Goodrow.

“That’s insider trading,” Engblom said. “He knows Cirelli really well. He knows what a dog he is on the puck. So he knew the effort level he had to give. For two years, he knew. But also on (Cirelli’s) side. There’s a really good example. He was a little off, being in protocol.”

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