Road Weaklings: Tampa Bay Lightning's Away Woes Derailing Playoff Chances

JC De La TorreAnalyst IIIJanuary 20, 2010

NEW YORK - JANUARY 19:  Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers finishes a check against Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 19, 2010 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Oh what a difference a week makes in the NHL. Just seven days ago, we were buzzing about the Lightning's dominant victory over one of the league's best teams. A week ago the offense scored, the defense defensed, and the goalies looked like Terry Sawchuck on Mark McGwire's meds.

Today, it's a bit different. As we wake up on this wonderful morning, it's quite obvious that there's a power outage in Tampa Bay's offensive arsenal. They can't score, but they make up for it by not getting the puck out of the zone and the goalies treating the puck like a bull charging at the matador—OLE'!

No folks, in the aftermath of the 8-2 nationally televised debacle in New York against John Tortorella's Rangers, this hockey team looked more interested in dropping gloves than closing the gap for the final playoff berth.

Somehow, the Lightning remain just one hot streak away from being in the playoffs. Four points separate the Bolts from the eighth and final playoff spot. Oh, and five teams as well. In the jumbled mess that is the Eastern Conference, the Norfolk Admirals have a chance to make the Eastern Conference playoffs at this point.

Still being in it is simply not a feather in anyone's cap. Toronto's still in it and they're a horrible hockey team.

The injury to Mike Smith definitely has hurt, but Smith is always injured. It's why the Tampa Bay Lightning brought in Antero Niittymaki. Niittymaki made like Patrick Roy earlier in the season, outplaying Smith for months, but in his last few outings he's looked less like Roy and more like Niittymaki, the goalie too inconsistent to be a No. 1.

With Niitty struggling against the Rangers, Tampa Bay Head Coach Rick Tocchet sacrificed Dustin Tokarski to the Broadway Blueshirts, with the young goalie giving up three of the Rangers eight goals on the night.

He may have done it to save Niittymaki's psyche, or maybe he was waving the white flag on another road loss.

When the Lightning look back on their entirety of their season, the struggles on the road will haunt them. Good teams, bad teams, it doesn't matter for Tampa Bay. They lose to them all.

The Lightning have notched just eight victories on the road this season, worst among the competitors for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Their 21 road points scored is also among the worst in the conference.

Why has it been such a struggle? Goal scoring is definitely one factor. Tampa Bay is averaging 2.33 goals a game on the road, down from their 2.86 average at home.

While not lighting the lamp consistently has been a problem for Tampa Bay, it's not isolated to the road, Tampa Bay has trouble scoring no matter where the sheet of ice resides.

On the road though, the Lightning have struggled keeping the puck out of their own net. At home, Tampa Bay is among the league leaders in the NHL in goals against average, with a nice 2.32 average. On the road, it's a vastly different story.

Tampa Bay has the third worst GAA on the road, an abysmal 3.59.

Folks, if you can't score and you can't keep the other team from scoring, you're going to go 8-14-5 on the road and you're not going to make the playoffs.

What can they do to improve? For one, get the damn puck down the ice. The Lightning have the annoying tendency to get bottled up in their own end. You can't score from your defensive zone. Instead of the forwards sitting up at the blue line waiting for a pass, how about going back and digging for pucks, help the young defense out?

Once you get it into the attacking zone, show some tenacity, forecheck aggressively, make the opposing team work to get out. So many times we've seen the bad guys with an easy out. You can't have that and score goals.

"They out-hit us, they out-played us, they out-everything. They out-coached. Their leaders outdid our leaders. Their goaltenders out-goaltended us. Every facet of the game, they outdid," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said of the Rangers.

On the road this season, that's been the standard, not the exception.

With the playoffs within a stone's throw, the opportunity is still there. The Lightning have to seize it. Perhaps that's why there was a 10 minute players-only meeting following the game last night.

"The message was to look yourself in the mirror," defenseman Mattias Ohlund said. "Our season is now. It's not two weeks from now. We have a stretch of games coming up, we're either going to be in the hunt for the playoffs or we're going to set ourselves so far back, it's going to be awfully hard to get there."

Tocchet was asked after the game if the Lightning still had a playoff run left in them.

He channelled the NFL's former Colts coach Jim Mora's infamous "Playoffs?" line by saying, "I'm just worried about the next period."