Eight games ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were on cloud nine, wrapping up a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers and padding their lead in the Southeast Division over the Washington Capitals to five points.
They were in shouting distance of the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference—only five points behind the Philadelphia Flyers.
Eight games ago, they would dispatch the bottom feeders of the conference with ease. They would have steady goaltending, a dangerous offense led by the top sniper in the NHL and a feisty, hard-hitting forecheck.
It's all disappeared for Tampa Bay in the blink of an eye.
Now the Lightning are chasing Washington, down by five points with 13 games left to play. Now they must rally with eight minutes left to play to squeeze a point out of the Florida Panthers—a team that was dismantled like no other by the trading deadline.
Now their forecheck is non-existent, their defense makes unforced errors, their scorers can't find the net and their goalies can't keep it out of theirs.
A team that looked like a legitimate Cup contender has collapsed upon itself.
What in the world happened?
Tampa Bay looks like a team running on fumes right now. Injuries have taken their toll and, perhaps, so has Boucher's unique 1-3-1 system.
The system requires a lot of the players on both ends of the ice. The Lightning have handled the system like champs all season, allowing them to get off to their best start in franchise history.
As the injuries, quirky schedule and losses have mounted, the Lightning are skating like they're in slow motion.
The defense seems to always be a step or two behind and has had unforced mental errors. The forwards don't seem to have any energy in their forecheck, sustaining few big hits. The Lightning find themselves scrambling around in their own zone all too often.
There are times when hockey players simply get into a funk. They grip their sticks a little harder and try to make the perfect pass or pinpoint shot. They tense up in front of the goal and pass up the easy play for something more elaborate.
Several players in Tampa Bay seem to be suffering from this psychosis.
Steven Stamkos—the top goal-scorer in the league—passes up point-blank shots for ill-advised passes. Experienced defensemen like Mattais Ohlund and Pavel Kubina fire up the middle of the ice in their own zone.
It's all part of tensing up and trying to play too fine.
While they've been playing this system all season, sometimes the Lightning just look confused as to what to do on the ice.
Too many times have there been lapses at the blue line, allowing odd-man rushes at the goaltender. Part of that is Boucher's system—as it's one that makes the goaltender vulnerable—but that's just it.
Bad positioning of the players has led to unforced errors—passing the puck and expecting someone to be where they're not.
It's a sign that the Lightning simply haven't gotten the intricacies of the system down yet.
"We have put so much emphasis on the defensive game. We practice a lot of that and became great at that, but then the downfall," Boucher said. "It's basically like Washington, where it was all offense and then all of a sudden they weren't scoring any more goals. Now they seem to get that correct balance. So we are there. We have 13 games to get that correct balance."
The Lightning should be safe for the playoffs, but as each loss mounts, the problems bubble to the surface even more.
The last thing you want going into the postseason is to be playing your worst hockey.
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