by Jon Jordan on 03/23/11 at 12:43 PM ET
March has been unkind to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But it’s time for the Tampa Bay Lightning to be unkind right back.
Since finishing February 19 games over “NHL .500” with a five-point lead over second place Washington in the Southeast Division, the Bolts have been overtaken by the Capitals and then some, now seven points behind in the division race and just 2-5-4 this month overall after a 5-2 home loss to the New York Islanders last night, coupled with Washington’s shootout win in Philadelphia.
With nine games remaining on the regular season schedule, the Lightning can pretty much forget any division title hopes – a shame, really, considering how dominant this club was for much of the year while the Caps were busy figuring themselves out – and the turning point in this race, looking back now, is clear.
When Washington took care of the Florida Panthers in overtime on March 6th to take over the lead in the Southeast for the first time since December 29th, it should have irked Tampa Bay, providing some outside motivation for a team that hadn’t had to worry about as much for so long. And maybe it did, albeit for a very short time. A night later, the Caps prevailed in a shootout over the Lightning and haven’t looked back since, 6-1 since that game (their only loss in that span coming at the hands of the Red Wings in Detroit) and on the verge of securing a fourth straight division championship.
Simultaneously, Tampa Bay has flopped at just 2-2-3 and is looking nothing like the powerhouse they appeared to be for so much of the year.
Yes, they’ve had injuries and the losses of Steve Downie and Ryan Malone, in particular, have been significant, to say the least, but every team – especially at this stage of the season – has to deal with that hindrance. The Bolts need look no further than Washington, yet again, for an example of just that, as their division foes have managed to win consistently (to the tune of their current 13-2 run) without the services of Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Tom Poti, Jason Arnott, Semyon Varlamov at one time or another, and many all at once, and now without, even, Alex Ovechkin, who will sit for up to ten days with an undisclosed injury.
And, yes, several opponents that have bested Tampa Bay of late – Ottawa twice, Florida, the Islanders – are non-playoff teams, loose as can be on the ice with little (more) to lose down the stretch. That always makes for a tricky test for a club of the Lightning’s stature and it can be argued that this team has had its share of playing down to a lesser adversary at other times this season. Much like the injury plague, however, the good teams manage to find a way through and, lately, the Lightning just haven’t been good.
It wouldn’t be too late and maybe not a bad idea at all for this team to get a little angry at what’s happening to them and to show a little fire before all is said and done. Perhaps we saw that for a brief stretch last night when Sean Bergenheim took umbrage with Travis Hamonic for cross-checking Martin St. Louis into the corner boards in the Islander end. But that outburst cost the Lightning a 5-on-3 chance and did nothing to influence the score, yet another recent blemish besmirching so much of the good things accomplished throughout the better part of the season.
Could that early success, sustained, for the most part, all the way through the end of February be to blame, in part, for the current downturn? It’s virtually impossible to accept that this team is satisfied with having done enough early on to secure a playoff berth, realistically, but isn’t that about the same as what eternal optimists are clinging to regarding the current Lightning funk?
Some will spin Tampa Bay’s recent woes by citing the eight points they’ve managed to pick up during the March slide or the fact that all three losses on a recent road trip came in either overtime or the shootout. But that 1-0-3 stretch is still one win and three losses, from a bottom line perspective – after all, the operative term in “loser point” is “loser” – and, in the playoffs, there is no such consolation prize.
So, while thoughts of a division title may now be misplaced, a playoff mindset had better come soon.
The Lightning aren’t in any danger of missing the post-season, not with an 11-point cushion over ninth place Carolina, but by backing into the dance as they’re doing right now, they are very much in danger of putting a fantastic rebound season to waste.
Panic mode may not be upon the Lightning but a sense of extreme urgency had better be.
With nine games left, the window of opportunity to get things turned around and build some momentum for the playoffs is closing right before their eyes.
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