Slumping Bolts looking to stop slow starts
When the ball dropped on New Year's Eve, the bottom dropped out for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
They are 0-for-2012 -- and counting.
On the heels of their seventh straight loss, a 6-3 setback at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Lighting find themselves in a slide that's starting to recall recent memories of a certain pro football team in town.
The beleaguered Bolts suddenly find themselves in a place no one would have imagined after last season's inspired playoff showing, taking them to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals: last in the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division.
With a record of 17-23-4, they now trail the lowly Carolina Hurricanes (16-24-7), who blew them out 5-2 at the Forum last week -- easily the most humiliating loss in the current streak.
And guess what? It could get worse unless the Lightning can get in gear -- and preferably early on for a change -- Tuesday night against one of the best teams in the NHL, the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, who come to Tampa atop the Northeast Division at 28-12-1.
The fact that it's a home game might suggest the Lighting would have a better chance of beating the Bruins. The team skated into January losing three straight in Canada, but with a promising home record of 11-5 and a crucial stretch of nine games in the next 12 in their own building.
But home ice has proven to be no advantage thus far, with three consecutive losses. And after facing the Bruins Tuesday night, the Lightning will hit the road for back-to-back games against Dallas (24-18-1) on Friday and Phoenix (20-18-7) on Saturday.
What's going on here?
Certainly the well-documented wave of injuries has been part of the problem, impacting continuity and effectiveness. But maybe there's a parallel to be drawn between the Lightning and Bucs, who finished the season in an epic 10-game collapse.
Both teams were coming off surprise years -- the Bucs with their 10-6 campaign of 2010 after going 3-13 in 2009; the Lightning exceeding expectations with a new regime, overcoming a slow start to finish 46-25-11, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 and blazing through the postseason and into the conference finals.
Perhaps players on each team took for granted that they would simply build on the successes of the previous seasons and didn't approach the new seasons with the necessary sense of urgency to replicate and build on the break-out performances. Complacency is a common pitfall in pro sports -- and life -- and it may have seeped in and tripped up both the Bucs and Lightning this time around.
It's simply too convenient to blame it all on the aforementioned injury bug, which also afflicted the Bucs. Every team deals with that and has to make adjustments. But one reality -- when the losses begin to mount -- is that confidence and morale take a pounding, and that can lead to more breakdowns.
Slow starts have also been a particular problem for both teams. The Bucs have the market cornered on low point production in the first quarter. The Lightning have been outscored 54-30 in the opening period and have held the lead only eight times heading into the second.
That's not exactly an ideal formula for winning hockey games.
True to form, the Bolts fell behind 3-0 on Sunday, starting off by allowing two easy goals by the Penguins in the first, and then they staged a furious rally to tie the score 3-3 in the third period. But they were done in by Evengi Malkin's hat trick in the third en route to the disheartening defeat.
Forward Ryan Malone, who scored one of the three Lightning goals in 4:50 to tie it, said a sense of desperation was lacking from the start.
"We need to win our battles one-on-one," he said. "The coach can draw up a system, and we try to execute it as best we can, but until we have some more pride or whatever it may be -- we need to obviously battle harder. The desperation has to be there right from the drop of the puck. Until we have some more pride or whatever it may be, we have to battle harder."
Tampa By leads the NHL comebacks with 10, but, as Malone said, "you don't want to be coming back every game by two goals."
Falling behind early, once again, left head coach Guy Boucher shaking his head,
"It's tough because it's the same as last game (in a 4-3 road loss to Washington)," Boucher said. "… If it's something that occurs once every blue moon, it's a lot easier to manage, but it's happened quite a bit and you got to dig a lot deeper, and that's why it takes a bit more time to get going. You got to dig deep to get rid of the negative side of starting from behind.
"It's emotionally draining, yes, but we fight it and always fight to come back and give ourselves a chance and we did again tonight. We don't want our fans to see us quitting; we don't want our fans to pay the tickets for nothing. I thought when it was 3-3, the barn was going berserk and our players were confident; they took a timeout and we still scored."
Malkin then dampened spirits with a back-handed goal off the sideboards to make it 4-3. And he crushed them soon after by taking advantage of a Teddy Purcell turnover in the neutral zone by making it 5-3 on breakaway score with just more than 10 minutes left to play.
"For me, on that fourth goal, it's not over; you got 10 minutes left, that's plenty of time," Boucher said. "That fifth one off that turnover, that killed us because it's things that we've been talking about and turnovers that kill. That's the NHL."
The only consolation for the Bolts is that there are still 38 games left, theoretically enough time to fight to get back in the playoff hunt.
"We have no choice," said forward Nate Thompson. "We have a lot of hockey left this year, and no one's going to feel sorry for us."
Added Boucher: "There's guys that are down and they have trouble keeping going, but it's certainly not going to be the captain of the ship, because I'm going to get up tomorrow and work."
Somehow, his sense of urgency will have to translate to the team as a whole -- or it will be a long season indeed.