TAMPA — The Lightning found out before Saturday’s home game against Carolina that their top offensive player would be unavailable due to an illness, and without right wing Nikita Kucherov, they clearly weren’t the same team.
A 4-0 shutout loss might have been their worst of the season, especially at home, where they rarely are so outmatched. But midway through the third period, boo birds filled Amalie Arena, venting their frustration with the home team.
The Lightning fell behind just three minutes into the game and were never able to get back in it. Carolina’s in-your-face, deliberate game plan made every pass a challenge as the Hurricanes seemed to constantly have a stick in the way. The Lightning struggled to possess the puck, let alone create sustained pressure in the offensive zone, whether it was in 5-on-5 or on the power play. In fact, their best looks might have come short-handed.
“It’s tough to create anything offensively when you don’t have the puck there,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “They’re an aggressive team in terms of the forecheck and hemming teams in their own end, so that was probably the case.”
Here are three takeaways from the latest loss:
Can’t replace Kucherov at the last minute
The Lightning have won in the past without Kucherov. They played a COVID-shortened, 56-game regular season without him three years ago and were fine. But they had time to prepare for being without him. On Saturday night, they found out in the 11th hour that he wouldn’t be able to play.
Everything goes through Kucherov. He controls the puck often, whether it’s on entries or setting up in the offensive zone. He is the team’s chief facilitator in 5-on-5 and on the power play.
This year he’s taken on a bigger role as a goal scorer. He entered Saturday tied for second in the league in goals (11) and shots on goal (63). Without Kucherov, the Lightning seemed lost, especially in the offensive zone, where they struggled to find any looks in front of the net as they allowed Carolina to force them to the outside. The Lightning couldn’t get the puck to their top scorers. Stamkos and Brayden Point only had two shot attempts each on the night.
The Lightning had three power-play opportunities after Sebastian Aho’s goal made it 2-0 early in the second period, but they manufactured just two shots on goal in six minutes of man-advantage time.
Home ice not so nice
When the Lightning struggled on the road last season, they knew they’d be able to munch points at home. They were one of the best teams in the league on home ice.
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They had earned points in all six home games going into this week. But after dropping both games of their short homestand and allowing a combined nine goals — they lost 5-3 to Chicago on Thursday — another key road trip looms.
The Lightning play at St. Louis on Tuesday and at Chicago on Thursday. Going two games without points is one thing; going four straight can drop a team in the standings quickly, and the Lightning are 2-3-2 away from Amalie Arena.
“We’ve got to get these points (at home),” coach Jon Cooper said.. “And so that’s disappointing to come out of these two games without points. And so now we’ve going to get back on the road. ... Not completely thrilled with how we got beat (Saturday). It just adds a little more pressure for us to go on the road. And we have to come together and not accept what happened these last two games.”
Early penalty was a game-changer
As much as it’s about the number of penalties a team commits — and the Lightning have done a good job so far of limiting them after being one of the most-penalized teams over the past few years — it’s also about when they happen.
Fourth-line center Luke Glendening’s first-period roughing penalty proved costly. It was a peculiar call because it came after Glendening was swiping at a loose puck in traffic in front of the net before some post-whistle pushing and shoving that typically follows that type of play. Glendening shoved Carolina defenseman Dmitry Orlov to the ground in front, but it was hardly egregious enough to be the one and only call to come out of that kind of scrum.
But it might have been the biggest call of the game. Carolina needed just 19 seconds to capitalize with Teuvo Teravainen’s power-play goal, allowing the Hurricanes to do one of the things they do best: protect a lead with their lockdown style of play. Carolina is 5-2-0 when they score first and 4-0-0 when they take a lead into the first intermission.
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