This evening, the Tampa Bay Lightning struggled in their 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames. Johnny Gaudreau scored a hat-trick while Mikael Backlund netted the fourth goal for Calgary. Alex Killorn was the lone goal scorer for Tampa Bay. Jacob Markstrom stopped 30 of 31 shots. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 28 of 32 shots. The Lightning lost consecutive games in regulation for the first time with tonight's loss.
Frustration sums up this evening's game. Tampa Bay failed to maintain control and didn't dictate the pace consistently all game. There were flashes from the Lightning, but Markstrom and the Flames defense did a spectacular job taking away Tampa Bay's top weapons. The silver lining is that the Lightning did play a better game than they have over the past few games, but little things are still the root problem of Tampa Bay's recent struggles.
The Lightning's struggle started early as Mikhail Sergachev was called for hooking 35 seconds into the game. The ensuing penalty kill was solid, but the pace and tone were firmly in Calgary's favor as play returned to 5v5. It didn't take long for Calgary's pressure to lead to another penalty, this time on Ondrej Palat, where they capitalized to take the lead.
Arguably one of the sloppiest penalty kills we'll see from the Lightning this season. The whole thing was just a mess to watch.
Typically, the Lightning aggressively pushes back after giving up the first goal, but Calgary limited their transition game by repeatedly disrupting zone exits and neutral zone transitions. Tampa Bay's offensive zone possessions mainly were one and dones, dump and chases that resulted in play moving back toward their zone, or outright failing to enter the offensive zone. There were occasional flashes, such as Ross Colton getting a great chance down low, but Markstrom was there every time.
There was a chance for Tampa Bay to assert themselves late in the period as Nikita Zadorov was given a double minor for high sticking, but the Lightning wasted the first 2 1⁄2 minutes of the man advantage struggling to enter the offensive zone, giving up shorthanded chances, and missing easy passes. Once Tampa Bay did get set up on the power-play, they managed to get one good chance on net before the period expired.
The penalty carry over to the second period saw better control from the Lightning, but nothing got past Markstrom. Tampa Bay finally gained some momentum and started stretching the Flames out in the neutral zone and putting pressure on Markstrom, specifically, Nikita Kucherov (who recorded six shots this evening—most in the game) started dictating the pace and forced the Flames to scramble. That pressure led to another power-play for the Lightning, which saw a much more focused effort and a good scoring chance for Steven Stamkos, but again Markstrom held the fort down.
After Tampa Bay's second failed power-play, the game entered a back-and-forth flow between the two teams. This played more into the Lightning's hands as they finally managed to get one past Markstrom to tie the game.
It's a simple play that leads to the goal, something Tampa Bay struggled to do for much of the evening, but Mathieu Joseph, Colton, and Killorn do everything right to get the Lightning on the board. Specifically, Joseph and Colton's awareness makes this goal happen with their creativity. Killorn is in the right place boxing out a Flames skater so that only his stick could be hit with the puck (it also helps that the skater covering him was attempting to give him a hug or something).
Unfortunately, that was the last time Tampa Bay managed to pose a real threat in the game. Calgary regained control in a span of 52 seconds, scorching the Lightning in the process.
Poor puck management, turning the puck over in the defensive zone, and a bounce gave the Flames the lead back. The goal was chaos near the net, and the Lightning just failed to get control of it.
Losing puck battles—check. Failing to properly tie up the skater's stick in front of the net—check. Not getting bailed out by your All-Star goaltender—check. Simply put, Calgary upped the pressure, and Tampa Bay didn't match it. There's little excuse in allowing two goals in less than a minute at the end of a period. After battling to tie the game with Killorn's marker, these two goals completely sapped the Lightning's momentum.
The third period saw Tamp Bay elevate their desperation, but it mattered little. In prime Darryl Sutter fashion, the Flames clamped down defensively (including getting away with three blatant penalties) and choked the life out of the Lightning. Tampa Bay struggled to beat Markstrom and began selling out to keep their offensive pressure going. That led to turnovers, odd-man rushes, poor defensive coverage, and another goal against.
I'm still trying to understand what exactly Sergachev was doing near the end of this sequence. His stick check at the blue line was smart; it was just a fortunate bounce that Gaudreau managed to keep it. He managed his spacing well enough after the puck went below the goal line, but then he coasts to the front of the net—doesn't check behind him or look at what his teammates are doing, just puck watches as he glides to the opposite goal post. Victor Hedman's befuddled expression says everything on this goal.
The Lightning didn't quit after going down by three goals. This team doesn't quit on any game, but nothing they did for the remainder of the period upped the pressure on Markstrom or the Flames. This time, there was another uncalled penalty on Sean Monahan after he took down Stamkos from behind. Stamkos decided to take things into his own hands and dropped the gloves against Monahan on the next shift, but the Flames center didn't engage and turtled onto the ice as the Lightning captain threw punches. The ensuing scrum led to a single penalty being called...on Tampa Bay.
The following 5-on-3 was nothing but a formality as time ran out.
Overall, frustration is the only thing that can be said. Tampa Bay grew more and more frustrated from puck drop on, and it showed in all facets of their game. It was better than the performance in Winnipeg, but that isn't saying much. Little things continue to kill the Lightning. Puck management is all over the place; at times great, other moments atrocious, and all varying degrees in between. It's as if the team is mentally checking out at moments, and opponents are severely punishing these lapses. It's no time for panic, but it is a cause for some introspection and pause. After stringing together a good winning streak and taking over the top spot in the division, the Lightning has stumbled over their feet and is trying to restabilize.
Given the coaching staff and players' history, they will iron these out, but it's odd to see when the team should have these kinds of issues sorted out. Or, this could be a blip on the radar, a normal occurrence for a team that knows how to tighten things up when the games get more important.
Who knows? We'll see how they respond in Edmonton this weekend.