In their first game after the All-Star break, the Lightning desperately needed a home ice win against an Atlantic Division opponent ahead of them in the standing in the Boston Bruins. The end result was a disappointing 4-3 loss that was emblematic of Tampa’s season after 51 games played. The offense once again seemed stuck in neutral, managing only 21 shots on goal and missing on several golden opportunities to hit the back of the net, including Jason Garrison’s slap shot that skidded between the pads of Bruins goalie, Tuuka Rask only to have defenseman Colin Miller slap the puck away before it crossed the goal line. The defense, which looked like it had turned a corner during the recently completed six-game road trip, fell back to its old ways of failing to clear the puck out of their defensive end and allowing the Bruins extended time in the offensive zone that resulted in 35 shots on goal. Especially back-breaking was the two goals they allowed in the last 1:52 of the second period, including David Krejci’s goal with less than a second on the clock that turned a 1-0 Lightning lead into a 2-1 Boston advantage after two periods. Or as Tampa defenseman, Anton Stralman said afterward, “We just lose our game plan when we hit a bump. There’s been too much of that happening.” Despite a late rush at the end of the third period that included a goal for the returning Braydon Point, the Lightning fell agonizingly short, a frustrating loss that was embodied by Victor Hedman’s reaction of smashing his stick on the ice once the final horn sounded. The loss put the Lightning 8 points behind the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division and six points behind the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. The season isn’t over but with three games left on this current homestand, things need to turnaround, and turnaround soon, if Tampa wants any chance of making the playoffs.
With the season essentially in the balance over the next 30 days, it’s time for head coach Jon Cooper to make a decision about who his number one goaltender is and allow his choice to start the majority of the remaining games. So far, Cooper has employed essentially a platoon system between Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy that rarely sees either goalie playing more than two consecutive games unless an injury to either one (specifically Bishop) forces him to do otherwise. The results of Cooper’s strategy, unfortunately, have failed to produce any consistent results. The tandem of Bishop and Vasilevskiy has combined for a 2.78 goals against average and each has earned 11 victories, numbers that are mediocre at best. It just seems neither goalie has been given the chance to gain any rhythm and history shows that those teams who contend for a Stanley Cup have a bellwether goalie that plays game in and game out. Personally, my choice is Bishop, a goalie who led the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and the Eastern Conference Final last year. More importantly, when Bishop was out earlier this season for an extended period of time, Vasilevskiy was essentially given the chance to win the starting job and he failed to capitalize on the opportunity. There’s no denying that the chances of Bishop, a free agent at the end of the season, staying in Tampa after this year are slim at best. However, if Cooper wants to take a shot at the Cup this year, his best chance of success starts with handing the starting goaltending reigns to Bishop on a permanent basis.
No one wants to hear any excuses as to why the Lightning have arguably been the most disappointing team in the NHL this season but here are a few facts that, at the very least, may explain, why they are struggling just to become playoff contenders:
- Five players have made their NHL debut for the Lightning this season.
- The Lightning have played a total of eight games with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan Callahan and Nikita Kucherov in the same lineup.
- Only two players have dressed for all of the Lightning’s 51 games–Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn.
- 31 different forwards and defensemen have dressed in the team’s 51 games.
- Through 51 games, the Lightning have a -11 goal differential and are 15th in the league in goals per game (2.7) and 23rd in goals against (2.9).