ST. LOUIS — The Lightning are in a rut. They’ve lost three straight games in regulation, have gone their last two without a goal, and any momentum they build offensively is negated by egregious defensive breakdowns.
Their third straight defeat, a 5-0 loss to the Blues Tuesday night at Enterprise Center, encompassed the good, the bad and the ugly that’s become characteristic of the Lightning’s season just more than a month in.
“People are going to look and say, ‘Hey, we’ve been shut out the last couple games,’” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But the problem is — it’s not our offense. It’s that we’re giving up gifts. We have some good stretches in the game and just, that’s been the story this year is just giving up those easy ones.
“Guys are getting discouraged, and then they’re fighting it a bit, and so that kind of hurts the mojo of your team. We’ve just got to stop making those gaffes. I know the guys aren’t meaning to do it, but they’re happening.”
Here’s a look at three reasons why frustration is kicking in for the Lightning.
Early deficits are putting them at a disadvantage
The Lightning have had their challenges holding late leads, but in the past two games they were immediately at a disadvantage by falling behind early. Both St. Louis — and Carolina in the previous game — excel at protecting leads. After Tuesday’s game, the Blues are 7-0-0 when scoring first and 4-0-0 when having the lead after one period.
Teams like this go into lockdown mode once they have a lead. They don’t allow many looks, push everything to the outside, manage to get their stick on everything and block a ton of shots.
After not touching the puck much in the offensive zone against the Hurricanes, the Lightning’s focus was to put the puck on net. But St. Louis had 22 blocked shots after two periods.
The Blues also stayed out of the box, which kept the Lightning’s vaunted power play off the ice. Tampa Bay had just 2:21 of power-play time on the night. That also played into the Lightning’s 5-on-5 struggles. Tampa Bay has allowed 44 goals in 5-on-5 play, which is tied with San Jose for most in the league.
The snowball effect is becoming overwhelming
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The Lightning went into the first intermission down a goal but were outplaying the Blues in most facets of the game. They could deal with the deficit knowing they were a shot away from tying it, and in the second period it was much of the same. They outshot St. Louis 15-8 in the period and had 22 scoring chances, including 12 high-danger opportunities. But the Lightning went into the locker room deflated after falling behind 3-0 after allowing goals on back-to-back shifts 19 seconds apart in the final four minutes of the period.
What made it worse was that the first of the two goals came on a bad line change following an icing call, allowing Jordan Kyrou to spring free along the right side on a breakaway. Then, on the net shift, goaltender Jonas Johansson failed to clear the puck along the wall, past Calvin de Haan and Brandon Hagel, turning it over. It hemmed the Lightning in their own zone and allowed Jakub Vrana an open shot from the right dot.
“The guys are pressing and they’re not letting the game come to them, trying to force things, and when that happens the mental side takes over and sometimes you can struggle,” Cooper said. “So we just have to fight through it. You go through situations like this in a season, and it’s got to get through and the teams that have the mental makeup, they’ll get through stuff like this.”
They are reaching uncharted territory
Ultimately, this team hasn’t faced much adversity in recent years. It has overcome injuries, had strong starts to the season and never really had to claw to make the playoffs.
But this year it’s different. And you can’t pin it on not having goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. He might have prevented some of the goals the Lightning have allowed, but their defensive struggles have more to do with turnovers and coverage mistakes in their own zone than the goaltender in net.
The Lightning haven’t scored in 122:10 of game time and have just one goal over their past eight periods. Though they played out differently, the Lightning have been outscored 9-0 over their past two games. They’re not used to being on the short side of such lopsided games. The last time Tampa Bay was shut out in back-to-back games was in the 2015-16 season in a 2-0 loss Oct. 24 at Chicago and a 2-0 loss Oct. 27 at St. Louis. There were only four current Lightning players on that team: Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“You can see it wears on guys, too,” Hedman said. “Three tough games in a row. This is where it really tests your mental strength. We haven’t gone through this a lot lately, and some guys probably haven’t gone through it. It’s just how you respond to this. We’ve just got to make sure that the guys who have been here a long time lead the way.”
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