Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate the fate of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are 2-4-4 in their past 10 games:
Burnside: Well, my friend, three weeks from today, the playoffs will be under way. Still a ton of uncertainty in both conferences. Who will survive to play in the big tournament? Where will everyone end up when the dust clears? I was watching the play of the Tampa Bay Lightning last night with interest as they lost 5-2 to the New York Islanders on home ice. Ugly.
After scoring first, the Lightning allowed the improving Islanders to score four unanswered goals, spoiling goalie Dwayne Roloson's night against his former teammates. The Bolts have managed to win just twice in their past 11 outings, and Martin St. Louis told local reporters last night the team has "hit a wall."
We've seen other good teams go a little sideways of late (Detroit, Philadelphia and Boston, for example), but you have to wonder about the Lightning and whether they are one of those teams that can find terra firma again when it counts. Getting Steve Downie (maybe Friday) and U.S. Olympian Ryan Malone (perhaps next week) back will help, but I think the question is whether they've hit a wall or run out of gas.
LeBrun: I think St. Louis nailed it by saying the team appears to have hit a wall; the Bolts also look like they've lost a lot of confidence in themselves. This is a big test, too, for rookie NHL coach Guy Boucher. This is new territory for him at this level. He needs to keep his composure, because the players will smell any sign of panic. This is what you'll hear about the Lightning over the next few days: They need to get back to basics and focus on what made them successful this season. It's cliché, but it's exactly what they need to do.
Their power play is ranked sixth in the league, the penalty kill is 10th; they're fifth in shots on goal, sixth in shots against and eighth in goals per game. Those are all healthy numbers. The one that still haunts them, however, is being ranked 24th in goals against per game, which was actually a lot worse before Roloson came along and provided steadier netminding.
Burnside: I still think the Lightning are an interesting team when you project to the postseason. They look like they'll end up facing Pittsburgh or perhaps Montreal. Both will provide significant challenges and interesting storylines (Steven Stamkos getting his first taste of NHL playoff life; whether Roloson, 41, can still deliver the goods in the postseason, given his last playoff game was in 2006).
For me, though, you can't underestimate the importance of Downie and Malone. Both play with a ton of sand and have the ability to provide offense. If they come back healthy from significant injuries, it will be like dropping two top-six forwards into the mix to give the Lightning the kind of balance up front that few teams in the Eastern Conference can match. That's a pretty big "if," though.
LeBrun: The thing is, it's important to step back for a second and examine the big picture. A year ago, the Lightning finished 25th out of 30 NHL teams. Had anyone told them then they'd now be sitting fifth in the East with just over two weeks to go in the regular season, they'd take it in a heartbeat, slump or no slump.
Perspective is everything. So what you have to ask yourself now, remembering how far they've come in 12 months after GM Steve Yzerman and Boucher came on board, is whether the Southeast Division lead and a top-three seed in the East was a bit of a stretch, that jumping from non-playoff team to playoff team was the realistic goal all along. To me, that's exactly the reality of the situation. This team has come a long way in 12 months.
Burnside: Agreed. But this is also a team that has a ton of leadership and experience when you consider former Hart Trophy winner St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Malone (a big part of the Pens' run to the 2008 Cup finals), Simon Gagne (who may finally be getting his legs under him after a difficult transition from Philadelphia) and Roloson. They look like they have the ingredients to give pretty much anyone in the conference a test come playoff time.
But I think what Boucher and Yzerman have to reinforce over the next three weeks is the Bolts can't be one of those teams that becomes satisfied with just taking a giant step forward. Maybe it's inevitable. The Kings seemed to hit a wall against Vancouver last postseason after making significant strides during the regular season. Likewise for the Coyotes. Maybe that will also be the Lightning's fate, but you know Yzerman, et al, are working like crazy to keep that from being the team's epitaph, whenever their season comes to an end.
LeBrun: The Bolts have a home-and-home with the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes on Friday and Saturday, and they need to match their divisional rival's desperation level. Look for Stamkos, who has gone three games without a point, to have a big weekend, as the Lightning begin to turn things around. Until tomorrow, my friend.