Tampa Bay Lightning have potential to turn season around

20 December 2015: Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates with teammates on the Tampa Bay Lightning bench after scoring a goal in the 1st period of the NHL game between the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)
(Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

The 2015-16 campaign has been a weird one for the Tampa Bay Lightning up to this point. A year after leading the NHL in scoring and pushing the Chicago Blackhawks to six games in the Stanley Cup, they find themselves sitting 20th in goals per game, while also stuck in sixth place in the Atlantic Division standings.

On top of that, a new rumor about where Steven Stamkos is going to land next season seems to surface every other day — never mind the fact that he said over the weekend that his preference is to stay in Tampa. And while his 14 goals in 34 games still lead the team and put him on pace for a little more than 30 this year, that’s far from a typical Stamkos season. And it’s taken three goals in his last two games just to get him to 14.

Then again, that last sentence could be taken as a positive sign of things to come. Stamkos has set the bar incredibly high throughout his career, so it’s easy to lose perspective on just how difficult it is to routinely put up 40-plus goals every year. And it’s also easy to label a slow start with free agency rumors as an automatic disappointment. But Stamkos took a big step toward breaking out of his goal “drought” over the weekend. And the Lightning have quietly won six of nine in December.

So what exactly has been the issue? And is it starting to get remedied? It clearly hasn’t been in net, where Ben Bishop has looked like an All-Star through the first 34 contests. In 27 appearances, his goals against average is just 2.00. He’d have more than 14 wins already if he could just get more offensive support from the guys in front of him.

Again, that seems weird to say about a group that averaged 3.16 goals over a full 82-game slate just last year. It’s the undeniable truth though. At the moment, they’re averaging 2.50 goals per night — but they’ve averaged 3.00 goals per game in December just to get to that point. Through November, they were right near the bottom of the entire league in terms of offense.

Finding ways to put the puck in the net has definitely been a concern, and it hasn’t necessarily even been because of Stamkos. The ‘Triplets” line that really became the driving force for the club’s run through the Eastern Conference last season has seen its production dry up considerably. The trio of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat combined for 73 goals and 199 points in 2014-15. Through 34 games this year, they’ve managed just 18 goals and 41 points. And most of that has come from Kucherov, who has 12 goals and 11 assists by himself.

December 15, 2015: Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) scores a goal on Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) during the first period in a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario Canada. (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire)

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) scores a goal on Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (45) during the first period in a game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario Canada. (Photo by Nick Turchiaro/Icon Sportswire)

To be fair, Palat has been dealing with an ankle issue that has kept him out of the lineup for nearly half of Tampa’s games. That partially explains why his numbers are down, though his two goals in 18 games are still significantly off his normal scoring pace. And Johnson hasn’t looked anything like the player that finished as a Calder Trophy finalist in 2013-14, then set the playoffs on fire seven months ago. Like Palat, he’s also been dealing with various ailments.

Having any of that trio miss time is obviously going to throw the whole line off. And the good news is Johnson might return as soon as next week, with Palat not far behind — assuming all goes well. If they can start putting up points when they get back, that could prove to be huge for a Bolts team that has only won more than two games in a row twice all season, and has yet to string together more than three consecutive victories.

In fact, getting production from the Triplets seems downright vital when you take a closer look at the scoresheet in Tampa. Outside of Stamkos and Kucherov, no one else has more than eight goals. And the player with those eight goals is Brian Boyle, who isn’t necessarily in the lineup for his scoring prowess. He broke the 20-goal barrier once, with the Rangers, back in 2010-11 (21), but he usually fills roles (typically physical, Penalty-killing ones) other than third-leading-scorer on the roster.

Entering play Tuesday, the Lightning sit at 17-14-3 overall. That’s not bad by any means, but it’s a far cry from the numbers they were putting up just last year. It is still relatively early though and, if they need a reminder of just how quickly a winning streak could move them up the standings, they need look no further than the Boston Bruins in their own division. Claude Julien’s squad has gone 11-1-3 in their last 15 to pull within one point of first place Montreal, and the Atlantic as a whole has tightened up noticeably over the last three weeks.

To that end, if the Lightning can set aside any and all Stamkos-related distractions, get the rest of their lineup healthy and continue to receive top-notch goaltending from Bishop, they still have a shot to pull out of the rut that many teams seem to fall into the year after losing the Stanley Cup.

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