Defenseman Mattias Ohlund has perfectly personified the Tampa Bay Lightning’s fortunes between last spring and this spring. He spent the summer raring to build upon what had arguably been his most memorable season, and certainly his best postseason, but has instead plummeted to a new low.
Ohlund’s right knee operation in early October literally ended the 35-year-old, 909-game veteran’s season before it began. And his Lightning teammates, many of whom have variously joined him on the injured reserve, have failed to launch in his absence for six months.
The consequence: a virtually imminent second playoff no-show in Ohlund’s three Tampa Bay seasons, sandwiching last year’s surprise run to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals.
This is not to say that the Bolts’ single-season plunge from contenders back to playoff no-shows should be blamed solely on the loss of one individual. After all, several other skaters have missed substantial time―Vincent Lecavalier, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Bruno Gervais, Ryan Shannon, Ryan Malone, Nate Thompson, Victor Hedman―and no amount of health or lack thereof could have done much to avert the meltdown in net.
Still, Ohlund, one of Tampa’s more seasoned blueliners and one of the alternate captains, is the lone player who has been out since before opening night. If he were available this whole time, it is safe to assume that the Lightning would not be dead last on defense with an average of 3.38 goals-against per night. Nor would they have the Eastern Conference’s worst scoring differential at minus-46.
All season, the Bolts have constantly hovered within the vicinity of a .500 record and effectively spilled an opportunity to pounce on divisional rival Washington’s struggles.
If the likes of Ohlund, among others, were playing for the bulk of this season, the race for the Southeast Division crown could very well have boiled down to a footrace between the two Florida teams. His experience and leadership qualities could have made a critical difference in maintaining a few of the team’s hot streaks and bringing a quicker end to their cold spells.
A career Canuck from his 1997 debut through a summer 2009 trade, Ohlund joined his new club in an altogether uneventful and unremarkable 2009-10 campaign.
But with the advent of rookie coach Guy Boucher last year, the Lightning garnered a 23-point improvement and a fifth-place finish at 46-25-11. For his part, Ohlund dished up Tampa’s most reliable combination of hitting and shot-blocking, Brett Clark being his only teammate to also break triple digits in both columns.
He then led all Bolts blueliners through their 18-game playoff run with a plus-five rating. He trailed only Eric Brewer in the way of blocked shots (49) and trailed only Brewer and Malone for the team lead with 39 postseason hits.
Perhaps most telling, though, he was fourth on the team last season with an average ice time of 2:47 on the penalty kill per game in the 2010-11 regular season. As a team, the Lightning placed eighth on the NHL’s penalty killing leaderboard with 83.8 percent success.
Again, the team and the seasoned Swede only got sharper in the 2011 playoffs. The Lightning had the second-best penalty kill among last year’s postseason participants with 92.3 percent success and Ohlund playing a nightly average of 3:50 with the team shorthanded.
Conversely, without Ohlund’s services all season, Tampa entered Thursday night’s game against New Jersey tied for 26th in penalty killing with 78.6 percent success.
By night’s end, in the wake of a 6-4 setback, their position in that column had lowered to 27th. Furthermore, they woke up Friday morning with an exact .500 point-getting percentage and are either one loss or one Buffalo victory away from officially missing the postseason.
All things considered, Boucher has presided over a valiant fight to the penultimate week of the 2011-12 campaign. But odds are that the story would have been more about normalcy and less about adversity if Ohlund were healthy.