TAMPA — Since the All-Star break, the Lightning have been an average team.
Yes, they have shown in the past they can flip the switch when the playoffs start. They’ve had their share of second-half hiccups the past three seasons and elevated their game when it mattered most.
And because of their resume, there’s no reason they can’t do it again when the postseason gets underway next month with a likely first-round meeting with the Maple Leafs.
But this season’s struggles feel a little different. Every time the Lightning seem to make progress, when they seem to have found their game, they then take a couple of steps back.
It happened again this week. Tampa Bay won five of seven (including two quality road wins in New Jersey) before Sunday’s home loss to the Devils, followed by disappointing losses at Montreal and Ottawa. The Lightning tied their season high in goals allowed in Thursday’s 7-2 loss to the Senators.
Since returning from the break on Feb. 6, the Lightning are 10-10-5, a .500 points percentage. That’s a far cry from the .677 points percentage they owned through their first 48 games.
As Tampa Bay heads into a big measuring-stick game Saturday afternoon in Boston that again could shift momentum in its favor, here are five numbers that explain its post-break struggles.
Goal differential in 5-on-5 play since the break
The mark of a good team is how it plays at even strength. Sometimes special teams become a determining factor in the outcome of a game, but if a team’s 5-on-5 play is in good shape, it’s a good sign. Comparing shot attempts is a valuable indicator of how well a team is possessing the puck. But ultimately it’s about scoring goals, and in 5-on-5 the Lightning have been outscored by a dozen goals since the break.
Power-play goals allowed
The Lightning power play no doubt has been up and down, but their penalty kill has tied for the third-most goals allowed since the break. More concerning is that Tampa Bay has cut down on its penalties, something that was a major issue earlier in the season. The Lightning allowed 3.27 power-play opportunities over the first 48 games, a number they’ve cut to 2.76 post-break. Tampa Bay’s penalty-kill rate is 79.2%, which is right at the league average (78.63). But in the 25 games since the break, the PK success rate is just 75.3.
Games the Lightning have played
Entering Friday, no team had played more games since the break than the Lightning. As coach Jon Cooper said following Sunday’s loss to New Jersey, Tampa Bay had four games in hand on Toronto and three on Boston entering the break. Heading into Friday, they had played two more games than both teams. Saturday’s game ends a stretch of 19 games in 33 days. That means not only fewer off days, but fewer practice days, too. And for a team that’s played so many postseason games the past three seasons (71), fatigue eventually comes into play. The coaching staff has tried to find places to give players rest, making many recent morning skates optional to report, but the mental fatigue players might have is incalculable.
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Goals allowed when trailing
Like most teams, the Lightning have performed well when scoring first, netting points in 30 of 39 such games. But since the break, they’ve let too many games get away. Thursday’s loss was the third time they’ve allowed seven goals in a game, and all three followed the break. Over that stretch, they’ve allowed the third-most goals in the league when trailing. Their formula for success this season has been to keep games close going into the third period, then lock them down late. Tampa Bay is 36-6-4 when leading or tied after two periods, but that becomes irrelevant when they get caught chasing multiple-goal deficits.
High-danger goals allowed
Protecting the area in front of your net is key, and the Lightning have struggled to do so. But high-danger scoring chances are the best way to tell not only shots allowed from the area in front of the net, but also close-in shots on the rush and rebounds in front. So the fact the Lightning have allowed the second-most goals off high-danger chances might best encapsulate their struggles. It’s not just yielding goals from in front, but also off turnovers that lead to in-close attempts and not covering on rebounds. This is the biggest trouble sign for the Lightning going into the postseason, where games are tighter and more defensive-minded. By comparison, Toronto has allowed just 28 high-danger-area goals, Boston 23.
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