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December is a crucial month to separate from the pack for Lightning

Tampa Bay used this month to solidify its playoff positioning in recent seasons. The Lightning really need to again this season.
 
The Lightning need stars like right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) to continue carrying the load in December, but also cut down on the dumb mistakes.
The Lightning need stars like right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) to continue carrying the load in December, but also cut down on the dumb mistakes. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 3, 2023

TAMPA — December has typically been moving time for the Lightning, a part of the calendar when they start solidifying their playoff positioning.

They really need that kind of momentum swing this season.

November was not kind. Even though Nikita Kucherov led the league in scoring with 28 points and Brayden Point was sixth with 20, the Lightning were 6-7-2 in a month that included two three-game losing streaks.

The November frustration peaked Thursday night against Pittsburgh, when the Lightning blew a two-goal lead after a pair of offensive-zone turnovers by Kucherov turned into breakaways the other way and ended up in the back of the net in a 4-2 loss.

And their December slate didn’t start in a promising way. The Lightning lost to the Stars 8-1 on Saturday afternoon in Dallas. At 10-10-5 and with 25 points, they lost their hold on the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

Improved game, but no points to show

Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), center, celebrates his goal along with right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), left, Thursday.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), center, celebrates his goal along with right wing Nikita Kucherov (86), left, Thursday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The case can be made that the Lightning have made tremendous strides since the beginning of the season. Twelve of the 23 players on the opening night roster weren’t on the team when last season opened. They struggled early on to grasp a new defensive system, and they were without star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (back surgery) for the first two months.

“I think we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season, but just not getting the results and the mistakes end up in our own net,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We’ve just got to improve on that and keep playing the way we are in most areas of the game.”

Gradually, the Lightning have grown more comfortable protecting their own end, though there still are some defensive lapses that leave soft areas uncovered. But their stars started carrying the offensive load. And recently, they’ve mostly carried the play throughout the game with puck possession and offensive zone time, but have been hurt by their own miscues. In many of those situations, the Lightning have tried to get too cute with the puck rather than play a simpler game of getting the puck deep and establishing zone time.

“You don’t want to be gripping your stick all night and be afraid to make a play,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’re not pinning it on anybody. It’s a collective thing here. We’ve all done it. We’ve all gotten away with it at times, but that’s the thing that keeps coming up over and over again is when we’re playing well and we’re losing. it’s just little lapses in the game and that’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Decembers mean defense

The past two seasons, the Lightning showed their strengths when the calendar flipped to December, and that’s when good teams begin to hit their stride because they have worked out their early-season bugs.

Last season, the Lightning were 13-8-1 entering December, their 27 points good for the third playoff position in the Atlantic. They went 10-3-0 in December, solidifying their spot and keeping pace with the two division rivals — Boston and Toronto — ahead of them. More importantly they opened the gap between themselves and the fourth-place team in the division from two points to eight.

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The key? They shored up their defense. In their first 22 games last season, the Lightning allowed 3.18 goals a game, and in December they improved to 2.4 per game.

Two seasons ago, the Lightning also entered December in third place in the division with a 12-5-4 record (28 points), then rolled to a 9-2-1 mark that put them in first place in the Atlantic on New Year’s Day, three points up on second-place Florida.

The Lightning won nine of their first 10 games that month, and defense again carried the way, as they allowed two or fewer goals in six of the first eight games.

Tougher task to gain distance

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is back in the lineup as the Lightning hope to start distancing themselves from their division foes this month.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is back in the lineup as the Lightning hope to start distancing themselves from their division foes this month. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

As was expected going into the season, the conference — as well as the division — is more competitive. After Saturday, three teams — including the Lightning — were within six points of Detroit’s third-place spot in the Atlantic.

The good thing for the Lightning is they have improved their all-around game and Vasilevskiy is back. If they can stop hurting themselves, they could make another strong December run.

“We said it a few times this year already where we’ve had repetitive meetings about those plays that end up in the back of (our) net,” Stamkos said. “The guy makes a good play, you tip your cap and you line up at center. When we’re the ones making the mistakes throughout the year — all of us, myself included — they’re ending up in the back of our net. And that’s killing us in games where for the most part we played well, and then we have nothing to show for it.

“So it’s a collective effort. It’s not one guy, it’s all of us. We just have to simplify sometimes.”

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