Saturday’s loss to Washington provided a microcosm of what Tampa Bay’s season has been this year. Strong play in a close game until a few mistakes disjointed the team and saw them lose in a manner that isn’t befitting a team with this much experience and talent.
“They took advantage of a couple of mistakes we made,” was a comment from Ryan McDonagh that stood out to me. Not because it reiterates a common saying that the players and coaches have repeated this season, but because that is exactly what has sunk them so many times this season.
After an even first period where the only glaring issue saw Jan Rutta commit an egregious turnover in his own zone that Niklas Backstrom capitalized on, and a second period where Tampa Bay blew the doors off the Washington Capitals, a 45 second collective brainfart from the Lightning was all it took for the Caps to put this game out of reach.
McDonagh lamented a few moments later, “We gave them some life,” which, against a team like the Capitals, is a surefire way to throw away a winnable game.
Brayden Point, the lone Lightning goal scorer last night, was a bit more upfront on his take of the game, “I thought we played well tonight for the most part...bottom line is that in the third period we gave up some opportunities to a team that you can’t give up opportunities to.”
It also didn’t help that Nikita Kucherov left the game midway through the second period after blocking a John Carlson shot that hit him in the skate. The Lightning had no update after the game on Kucherov’s status.
Jon Cooper echoed McDonagh and Point’s comments after the game, “We left points out there tonight.” One thing I’ve noticed about Cooper during my three seasons covering the team is that he’s remarkably composed even when things don’t go well. Last night though, his frustration leaked out a bit, both visually and verbally. When asked about how this game got away from them he answered, “Just to come out the way we did in the third on just two egregious plays, that you know, that we’ve kind of gotten away from...that was definitely a lack of attention to detail in the first three minutes and it cost us.”
I asked if he felt the redundancy of these errors was frustrating the players or if they were sticking to the process and Cooper’s frustration came through a bit more in his answer, “No, I don’t think that at all. I think you’re talking to me five minutes after a game and yea, I’m pissed. If I do this press conference an hour from now maybe I’ll come down a bit, but we’re playing well and it’s unfortunate that a couple little things happen, and we can’t hang our heads about that we just gotta weed that out of our game. There’s no quit in the guys.”
To some, his response might not be enough, and that’s understandable, but the one thing that the Lightning organization has prided itself on since Jeff Vinik took over the team has been to not overreact to any particular situation. Previous general manager Steve Yzerman evoked that mentality during his tenure, and current general manager Julien BriseBois has stuck to that.
Last season, when it appeared that the Lightning could do nothing to blow a game, it was Cooper who repeatedly pointed to their issue in their own zone and that they can’t keep playing so loose defensively. He was right, and the team did take steps to address those issues, but ultimately they reared their ugly heads once the first round of the playoffs came around.
Now, Tampa Bay is seeing the opposite effect this season.
Alan has previously annotated how the Lightning have been perfectly fine when it comes to carrying play and generating quality scoring chances while limiting the quantity and quality of chances against, but the goaltending has been dragging them down. Last night, Tampa Bay didn’t give Washington much, but the few good chances they did allow ended up in the back of their net, which magnifies those mistakes more to the public eye.
There will be talk about how this Lightning team has no heart, or is incapable of playing hockey ‘the right way’, but those narratives hold little weight against rational scrutiny. Are the Lightning a good team? Absolutely. Are they also prone to baffling mistakes at inopportune times? Yes. Have they deserved better? That’s up for debate. The goaltending issues have been talked about before, and at some point Andrei Vasilevskiy has to turn it around, he’s too talented not too. But that doesn’t excuse the defensive breakdowns, the predictability in their passing on the power-play, their struggles exiting the defensive zone, or their propensity to overpass in certain situations. These issues have merely been exacerbated by that fact that Tampa Bay isn’t outscoring them like last season.
Regardless, it’s December 15th, and the Lightning sit one point out of a playoff spot, and four points from second place in the division. The games in hand that they’ve had in their back pocket as a crutch are dwindling away and they haven’t maximized that advantage, but they’re still in the thick of things. The Lightning aren’t dead yet. They’ve struggled, that’s for damn sure, but they’ve controlled play like a top ten team in the NHL. If their spot in the standings worsens by the new year, then it’s possible BriseBois looks into some kind of move to spark the team, but given how tight lipped the organization is, we’ll have to take a wait and see approach.