Upcoming stretch critical for struggling Bolts
TAMPA, Fla. — Halfway there, and a whole lot of headaches to show for it.
That's the story for the Tampa Bay Lightning midway through the 2011-12 season, as the team begins a welcome second-half homestand after a horror show on the road last week.
The black-and-blue Bolts trudged across the frozen Canadian tundra, losing players left and right and losing games to Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal by an unsightly combined score of 14-5.
Ongoing injuries to key players have left the team more than vulnerable as it desperately tries to make up ground now, lodged in fourth place in the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division at 17-20-3. On the heels of its 3-1 loss to the lowly Canadiens on Saturday, the Lightning finds itself nine points out of the last playoff spot heading into a critical stretch.
Of course, things looked a lot rosier before Tampa Bay left town, winning three straight and appearing to turn a corner in a season of frustration. Then the bottom fell out again, leaving the team desperate to regain momentum with four home games in the next five contests.
The bad news? That stretch starts Tuesday night against the team that fell just short of beating out Boston for the Stanley Cup trophy last year, the defending Western Conference-champion Vancouver Canucks. Once again, the Canucks rest comfortably atop the Northwest standings at 26-14-3 and 55 points, comfortably ahead of second-place Minnesota (21-15-6. 48 points).
The good news? The Lightning still have 42 games remaining, and nine of the next 12 take place at the Forum, where the Bolts have gone 11-5.
In fact, in the view of head coach Guy Boucher, this 12-game stretch will determine the season for his battered team as it goes into battle.
"Yeah, nine of the next 12 home, and you look at the opponents — we've got Boston, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, difficult teams," he said. "We've got Washington, (and) we're going in their rink while we're on a back-to-back and they're not. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be very difficult.
"The next 12 games are pretty much probably where most it is going to show what's going to happen to us. It's very crucial. It has been for a while. We got some wind in our sail and then we got injuries again and had to deal with them. It's putting us back quite a bit. Right now, we're still dealing with the same injuries."
The list has been formidable: defensemen Victor Hedman (out indefinitely, concussion) and Mattias Ohlund (out all season, knee surgery) and an array of injuries that have cost playing time to forwards Nate Thompson, Ryan Malone, Ryan Shannon, Adam Hall and J.T. Wyman.
That prompted Bolts general manager Steve Yzerman to acquire defenseman Brendan Mikkelson last week from Calgary for center Blair Jones. The former Flame was to make his debut Tuesday night, and Boucher is eager to see how he contributes.
"We're going to get to know him," Boucher said. "What we've seen in practice is that he's a tall defenseman with great speed, and he's got a very, very good shot. Now it's a question of if he can understand what he's doing fast and can he take some pressure — obviously the first game is a lot of pressure.
"And we're playing Vancouver. Let's not kid ourselves. This is a tremendous team and it's a big test for him — and for everybody else, too."
The Bolts could get a boost from the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Mikkelson, but they should definitely get one from the home crowd. They've won four straight contests at the Forum, averaging 3.5 goals per game there as opposed to 2.1 on the road. That inconsistency has just been one more part of the frustration this season.
"We don't want to be frustrated," Boucher said. "I think it's adversity, period. Adversity, adversity, adversity. Game in, game out. There's something happening. There's injuries. And there are things that don't necessarily go the way we want them to go. It's not about what happens to us. It's about how we react to it.
"So how we're going to react to it is it's a new day. We'll put our working boots on — and get to work."