“Comeback hockey is losing hockey.”
A cliché, no doubt, but one the Tampa Bay Lighting need to be reminded of, and soon.
It may seem like an odd time to be critical of the Lightning’s play so far, given the results; 3 wins in 4 games for the season-opening homestand at Amalie Arena, 6 points and an even goal differential even after a 4-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night. Looking purely and only at results, it’s hard not look at the Lightning’s first four games and see success. Winning hockey games, after all, is the ultimate goal. Two points is two points, and an ugly win will get you into the playoffs just the same as a pretty one. How games are won matters not in the long run.
Or does it?
The most glaring and obvious flaw in Tampa Bay’s game so far through four games is certainly their penchant for falling behind, forcing themselves into an aggressive catch-up pace they almost certainly will not be able to sustain over an 82-game season.
In four games they’ve yet to register the game’s first goal. On top of that, all three wins have come with the Lightning needing to come from behind more than once, often from multiple-goal deficits. In the season opener against the Detroit Red Wings, the Bolts had to come back from two separate two-goal deficits, and in perhaps their poorest period of hockey so far in 2016-17, they quickly crawled into another two-goal hole against the New Jersey Devils.
The Devils -- expected Eastern Conference bottom feeders — jumped out to (and actually deserved) that two-goal lead before the Lightning clawed back with three straight goals in the game’s final two frames. Things weren’t much better against the Florida Panthers, who were arguably missing 1/3 of their top six forwards, as the Cats led 1-0 and 3-2 before a “no one else in the league can do that” goal from captain Steven Stamkos saved the Bolts from a loss in regulation.
In short, the results have been fine. Three wins in four games, six points, and the only regulation loss coming against an out-of-conference opponent. But the process? It’s hard to say it’s been anything other than poor. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper admitted as much as early as after the New Jersey game:
"The start against Detroit wasn't all that bad," Cooper said. "We just took a penalty early and got scored on, but the start against Jersey...things that have been a point of emphasis for us in training camp was turnovers and D-Zone coverage and everything was out of whack."
Out of whack, indeed. And yet, here the Lightning sit. 3-1-0, “4th” in the division (tied for 2nd, really) and behind the division-leading Montreal Canadiens by a single point.
With all that said, there’s little reason to panic overall. It’s very early and the six points banked in the standings aren’t going anywhere. The Lightning are still playing Jon Cooper hockey, and are still very capable of playing the possess-and-attack style that has taken them to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals and within two games of a Stanley Cup two years ago. They rank 4th in the league in 5v5 Corsi% at 54.32% (albeit with the small caveat of having trailed quite a bit through four games) and will almost certainly get better season-long goaltending than the .885 SV% Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy have combined for so far this year.
But comeback hockey is losing hockey, and over the course of a full season, the Lightning cannot expect another deep playoff run and continued Stanley Cup contention without playing better while the score is still 0-0.