Expectations were sky high for the Tampa Bay Lighting and Anaheim Ducks after both advanced far in the playoffs last season.
Through the first two months, it's fair to say those expectations haven't been met.
The Lightning look to avoid a fourth consecutive road loss when they open a three-game California trip Wednesday night against the Ducks, who are coming off their most complete effort of the season.
With a deep offense led by superstar Steven Stamkos and the goaltending of Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay finished with a franchise-record 108 points in 2014-15 and reached the Stanley Cup Final before losing to Chicago in six games.
Naturally, the Lightning were expected to again be among the league's elite after bringing back virtually the same roster. Tampa Bay (11-11-3), however, wouldn't even qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today, and is much closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference than the top.
“I think it's way too early to start looking at playoff pictures and stuff like that,” coach Jon Cooper told the team's official website. “There's way too much hockey left.”
Their biggest problem is an offense averaging 2.32 goals, a huge dropoff from last season's league-leading 3.16 mark. That decrease can be attributed to several struggling players, none more so than Tyler Johnson, who has four goals and 11 points after setting career highs with 29 and 72 last season.
It appeared Tampa Bay was turning the corner with three straight wins over quality opponents in the Rangers, Anaheim and Los Angeles but losses to Washington and the Islanders followed.
The Lightning's usually reliable penalty-killing unit was beaten five times on seven opportunities in those losses after having killed 44 of 49 over the previous 18 games.
Tampa Bay went 0 for 3 on the power play in Saturday's 3-2 defeat to the Islanders and is 4 for the last 32.
“Clearly, special teams was the difference in the game,” Cooper said. “We play the whole game 5-on-5, we might have been OK, but special teams let us down a little bit.”
Special teams were no problem for the Lightning in their 5-0 victory over the Ducks on Nov. 21. Stamkos scored one of his two goals on the power play and assisted on Jonathan Marchessault's man-advantage tally to back Bishop's 30-save performance.
It was Tampa Bay's third straight win against Anaheim and gave it at least one point in 10 straight meetings (6-0-4).
Bishop is 5-0-1 with a 1.04 goals-against average against the Ducks, while Stamkos has seven goals and 12 points in seven meetings.
This season has been a struggle from the start for Anaheim (9-11-5), which opened with four straight losses and finished October 1-7-2.
The Ducks, who lost Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to the Blackhawks in May after a 109-point season, picked up their play considerably in November with an 8-4-3 record. They did just about everything right in Monday's 4-0 victory over Vancouver, as John Gibson turned aside 25 shots and 10 players recorded a point.
''We haven't had one like this all year so it was good to be able to breathe in the last 5 minutes of the game,'' coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Gibson could get another start with Frederik Anderson expected to sit again with the flu. Gibson stopped 28 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Lightning on Feb. 18 in the teams' most recent meeting in Anaheim.
After starting this season in an 11-game goal drought, Corey Perry has eight in his last 14 games. He has no goals in 10 contests against Tampa Bay.