Bolts snap scoreless drought, search for offensive identity

TAMPA, Fla. — They avoided making dubious history by breaking a scoreless drought that flirted with infamy, but the Tampa Bay Lightning have many steps to travel before escaping these thick woods.

Yes, the old horn sounded three times Thursday night in a 3-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators at Tampa Bay Times Forum, waving goodbye to a 137-minute, 19-second scoreless slide.

Yes, two of those goals came from the timeless Marty St. Louis, who notched Nos. 11 and 12 of the season to help snap a two-game losing skid.

Yes, the Lightning earned their first multi-goal game since totaling four in a win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 27.

But can the offensive burst be maintained? Preserved? Extended?

In this new life without injured superstar and offensive machine Steven Stamkos, how will the Bolts cut a path through their Land of the Unknown?

“We’ve been a team where goal-scoring really hasn’t been a problem for us in the past,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The problem is when you’re pressing, you try to do things out of your comfort zone and out of our natural habits, thinking that’s going to work when it really doesn’t. We’ve just got to stick with our program, and the goals will come.”

Cooper’s right that this is quite the identity makeover. Tampa Bay must keep it from becoming a crisis.

Let’s revisit a more predictable time before Stamkos’ right tibia snapped Nov. 11 in Boston.

The Lightning’s M.O. went something like this: They’re going to be a beast on offense, with proven stalwarts like Stamkos and St. Louis, but they must learn to deflect more pucks from their net to become a factor in the Eastern Conference.

Well, the Lightning had both parts of the equation humming before Stamkos was carted off at TD Garden. The two-time All-Star had 14 goals and 23 points in 17 games, and with the emergence of goalie Ben Bishop (15 victories after Thursday), the Bolts had sprinted to a 12-4 start before that awful day in Beantown.

Then adrenaline kicked in. After losing to the Bruins, the Lightning beat the Montreal Canadiens 2-1 in a shootout and blew out the Anaheim Ducks 5-1.

Predictably, the praise flowed. “Lightning showing no signs of fading without Steven Stamkos” was a headline that graced this website.

Turns out, that assumption was premature.

Tampa Bay would stumble to four consecutive losses on a wretched West Coast swing, then take two at home against the New York Rangers and Flyers before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.

“You give yourself a chance to win a game if you score a couple goals,” St. Louis said. “(Bishop) was strong, obviously. Without Bish’s play, we’re not winning this game. You’d like to score goals every game and help your team win. I don’t know if that’s leadership. It’s being opportunistic and putting yourself in that position.”

Because they did so, the Lightning sidestepped making history in an ugly way Thursday.

Their franchise-record scoreless drought of 166:34, set in March 2000, stands thanks to St. Louis’ goals plus another from center Valtteri Filppula in the third period.

Despite the dry spell, Tampa Bay’s offense still looks decent when stacked against others throughout the league.

The Lightning average 2.71 goals per game, which places them 11th in the NHL, well behind the Chicago Blackhawks’ league-best 3.47 but well ahead of the Buffalo Sabres’ league-worst 1.59. The Bolts are No. 11 in the goals-against category (2.43 per game), mostly because of Bishop’s play, so there’s some balance even without Stamkos’ hot stick.

“It’s just a way different game when you have the lead than when you don’t,” Cooper said. “I thought we did a good job of staying on top of (the Senators), not giving them a ton of space, and we actually created a few good chances in the third and scored on one of them. … It’s definitely much better to play with the lead than not.”

Racing ahead, not chasing from behind, will be more important than before in days to come.

The Bolts’ dressing room has started to resemble an infirmary wing. Nine players are injured, including Stamkos, with the latest being defensemen Victor Hedman (lower body) and Keith Aulie (fractured hand). Both went down Thursday.

Nine players on the current roster have played 50 or fewer NHL games. It’s next man up and next man in around here, so there’s no time for sulking. 

“Too many teams have closed the gap and have started to pass us,” Cooper said.

True, so some key questions will be answered in time.

Will more games with offensive flow follow? Will a new identity without a young superstar be found? Will the Bolts escape their post-Stamkos-injury malaise and threaten for the Eastern Conference’s top spot again?

“We didn’t score many goals the last couple games,” Lightning winger Ondrej Palat said. “Now, we scored three, and we won a game.”

Sometimes, it’s that simple. Score, score, score and enjoy the good times until strapping back up to try it all again.

But as the Bolts have learned since Nov. 11, little about life without their best offensive spark is easy.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.