TAMPA — The primary goal of any NHL road trip is to return home with more points than games played, and the Lightning started their three-game trek with promise last Friday when they routed Carolina 8-2 in goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s season debut.
They were riding some newfound momentum. Two points down, two games to go.
The ensuing back-to-back didn’t go as well, as the Lightning dropped games in Colorado and Arizona, outscored by a combined 7-2. They fell behind in both games; in fact, the Lightning have trailed in 16 of 23 games and have won just four of those.
The Lightning returned home with 25 points on the season, good enough for the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference entering Wednesday’s games.
This is the time of the year when the Lightning typically find their rhythm, and with the East muddled, they need to. Vasilevskiy is back from back surgery, Nikita Kucherov is leading the league in scoring, and Brayden Point is statistically off to the best start of his career.
But the Lightning’s main problem — and it was glaring in their losses to the Avalanche and Coyotes — has been lackluster 5-on-5 play. They will enter Thursday’s home game against the Penguins having scored 12 fewer 5-on-5 goals than they have allowed despite having 74 more shot attempts than opponents in those situations.
As Lightning coach Jon Cooper said following Tuesday’s 3-1 loss in Arizona, the Lightning’s vaunted power play has masked some of that. Their 25 power-play goals are tied for the most in the league and the 32.5% power-play scoring rate ranks second. But when the power play isn’t running at that clip — it was 0-for-5 Monday and Tuesday — the Lightning’s 5-on-5 play is glaring.
“You have to score 5-on-5 in this league and it’s just been tough for us,” Cooper said. “It’s not like the guys aren’t trying. At some point, we’ve got to start willing these pucks into the net.”
How poor has the Lightning’s 5-on-5 been? Their for/against goal percentage of 0.793 ranks 29th out of the league’s 32 teams.
Not all shot attempts are created equal
The Lightning’s loss to Arizona had a different script than the previous night in Colorado. Against the Avalanche, the Lightning were burned by allowing odd-man rushes; against the Coyotes, they dominated zone time and peppered the net with 77 total shot attempts, but netted just one goal.
But they also had 25 shots blocked (23 in 5-on-5) and 21 missed shots (17 in 5-on-5), which really takes away any shot attempt differential. This has been a theme throughout the regular season in 5-on-5, especially shots blocked. The Lightning are averaging 15.35 shots blocked a game in 5-on-5, an increase of 3.52 a game from last season.
Why? Teams are packing it in against the Lightning, yielding shots from the outside and taking away the middle in front of the net. This is where Tampa Bay misses guys like Alex Killorn and Corey Perry, who could create chaos in front of the net, taking away the goaltender’s eyes and creating tip-in and rebound opportunities. But the Lightning also need those perimeter shots — especially from the defensemen — to be more on target, find lanes and teammates’ sticks instead of defenders.
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More depth scoring needed
Again, Kucherov and Point have been superb offensively. Kucherov is on pace for 137 points, which would be a career high, and Point notched his 30th point Tuesday in the fewest games of his career.
The Lightning have scored 46 5-on-5 goals, and 19 of them (41.6%) have come from their top line combination of Kucherov, Point and Brandon Hagel. Stars always lead the way, but that’s a heavy load to carry for the top line.
One thing to note: Just three of Steven Stamkos’ goals have come in 5-on-5. Mikey Eyssimont and Tanner Jeannot (four goals apiece) both have more 5-on-5 goals. We’ve seen Cooper mix his lines in part to get Stamkos going in 5-on-5, and that experiment will likely continue, but it’s no easy fix, especially when trying to create a lockdown line centered around Anthony Cirelli or Nick Paul.
Little pushback from early deficits
The Lightning know their 5-on-5 play hasn’t been where it should be this season. They find themselves chasing games. In several instances, allowing the first goal has snowballed into multiple-goal deficits, which happened at both Colorado and Arizona.
They have attributed some of those deficits to unlucky bounces, but the Lightning have to learn to create their own breaks. What worked in the win over Carolina, where they fell behind 1-0 but went up big with three straight power-play goals, needs to translate into their 5-on-5 play. The Lightning showed remarkable urgency and killer instinct on the power play against the Hurricanes.
In that game, the best offense was a good defense. After going into the second period down a goal, the Lightning allowed just six scoring chances, and just two high-danger ones, in the final two periods in 5-on-5 play. That allowed them to be quick and fluid through the neutral zone and use their speed and skill with lots of open ice around them in the offensive zone.
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