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First-half dropoff, or set for takeoff?
The Lightning hasn't often looked likely to repeat as champs, but did match its first half from its Cup season.
By TOM JONES
Published January 5, 2006
BUFFALO - What is wrong with the Lightning?
As the defending Stanley Cup champions begin the second half of the season tonight in Buffalo, that question - What is wrong with the Lightning? - has stalked the team. The answer might be: nothing at all.
Maybe this is simply how good the Lightning is: win a few, lose a few and everyone's sense of what's realistic was thrown out of whack by the Stanley Cup run in 2003-04.
Could it be that this season's team - seventh in the Eastern Conference - is a more accurate representation of the real Lightning than the team that won the Cup? Could it be that the 2003-04 Lightning, and not this season's team, was the aberration?
On several occasions during and after the Cup run, coach John Tortorella admitted the team's championship came ahead of schedule. Perhaps now the Lightning is back on schedule, which has them a rung or two short of another Stanley Cup.
"I don't have any concerns about that," general manager Jay Feaster said. "I absolutely believe (we're still a Cup-caliber team)."
Well, looking at the glass half-full, the Lightning is 21-17-3 and on pace for 90 points, which should secure a playoff spot. But how the Lightning has arrived at that record has been maddening. It started 7-3-2. Lost six in a row. Followed that with a 10-1-1 streak. And then went 2-7-0 before winning the past two.
"I think the biggest thing we're trying to find is consistency in our game," Feaster said. "Through the first 41, it has been in spurts where we have put the entire game together. ... I don't know that it has all come together for an extended period of time."
The Lightning knew coming into the season that replacing goalie Nikolai Khabibulin would be its toughest nut to crack and, so far, the team still isn't sure it has. At times, goalies John Grahame (16-13-1) and Sean Burke (5-3-2) have played well enough to steal games and poorly enough to lose them. No surprise, then, that the Lightning is a middle-of-the-pack 14th in goals-against average.
At one stretch, the power play scored a goal in 10 consecutive games. Now with one man-advantage goal in the past 34 chances, the power play has sunk to 27th in the 30-team league. On the other side, the penalty-killing unit went from the league's best through the first month of the season to its current rank of 18th.
It's supposed to be a new NHL with high-flying tempo and goals galore, yet the Lightning has scored five or more goals only seven times and, as of Wednesday, ranked 13th in scoring.
There have been injuries and disappointments, forcing the Lightning to dress eight rookies, though not at the same time, this season.
"It has been a different year from the past two or three," Tortorella said. "I think we expected that: some things to not always be in place, some adversity coming to us. Our consistency on the ice in all aspects of the game hasn't always been there."
Tortorella saw the potholes before the season.
"We talked about this as an organization when we started the season," he said. "We felt there were going to be quite a few bumps and quite a bit of adversity coming through here. And we've seen it."
Another thing to note is that the Cup run overshadowed a topsy-turvy regular season. The 2003-04 Lightning had 45 points through 41 games - the exact same total as this season and the best first-half point total in franchise history.
But the 2003-04 Lightning went 27-7-2-5 during the second half and this season's Lightning has given no evidence it can put together that kind of run.
In 2003-04, the Lightning came from eight points behind in December to race past Atlanta, won the Southeast Division, and eventually secured the No. 1 seed in the East. Tampa Bay drew the eighth-seed Islanders and No. 7 Canadiens in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then played deciding seventh games at home in series against the Flyers and Flames.
This season, however, the Lightning is seven points behind in the Southeast to Carolina, which appears to be much better than the 2003-04 Thrashers. With Ottawa and Philadelphia well ahead of the Lightning, it appears Tampa Bay has an impossible mountain to scale to become the No. 1 seed again.
"We're trying to stress to the guys: Don't look at the standings or project (how we'll finish)," Tortorella said. "We're all about taking it one game at a time and every time we play a game, getting points that night.
"This (first half) has been a learning experience. We have to learn to deal with it. We're going to have to have a better second half. And I believe we will."