Shortly after Thanksgiving, the Tampa Bay Lightning crushed the New York Rangers 5-1 to improve to four games over .500 for the first time in three years. The Lightning had the look of an NHL playoff contender, with offensive stars shining each night and stingy netminding between the pipes.
It appeared that the days of being the league's doormat were over for the Bolts.
Then, the bottom fell out.
Since starting the 2009-10 season 10-6-8, Tampa Bay is mired in a terrible 1-7-2 slump. Goal scoring is the primary culprit in the slide, as the Lightning have scored two goals or less in seven of the nine losses. Still, even when the Lightning score, it seems they can't get the "W" (as evidenced by last night's 7-4 loss in Nashville where a 2-1 first period lead deteriorated under a five goal second period outburst by the Predators).
In every NHL season, teams will go into slumps where they simply cannot find their game. Even top-notch teams can go on four or five game skids. When it stretches to 10 games, you begin to wonder if it's simply a slump or reality smacking you square in the chops like a Zenon Konopka right cross.
After fast starts, Steven Stamkos and Ryan Malone have cooled off, while veterans Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Alex Tanguay, and Jeff Halpern have yet to find the back of the net consistently.
Defensively, the Lightning have played poorly behind their blue line as the defense is no longer playing that physical style that helped them so much in the first quarter of the season.
Goaltending by Mike Smith and Antero Niittymaki has been average to below average during the slump.
Things have gotten so bad that the Lightning benched Tanguay and Halpern for the Nashville game.
The good news for Tampa Bay is the extremely mediocre play of the entire Eastern Conference right now. Many of the contenders are mired in their own slumps. Tampa Bay finds themselves in a jumbled mess of seven teams within two points of an eighth and final spot for the playoffs. This group includes the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have risen from the dead with a 7-3 run to pull themselves back into the playoff picture.
Tampa Bay desperately needs help on offense if they're going to contend through March. With Stamkos nursing injuries and Lecavalier fighting through his own personal struggles on the ice, an answer for secondary scoring needs to emerge soon.
Through their first 33 games this season, the Lightning have been outscored 101-81. Tampa Bay's 81 goals is the second worst tally in the NHL (Carolina has the least goals with 77).
With so many talented scorers on the team, this shouldn't be a problem for the Lightning. Until they solve their back end issues, it will continue.