Just a few months ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were flying. The surprise of the East, the team got to the Eastern Conference Finals, led by their goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who caught fire with Tampa after his trade from the New York Islanders.
It couldn't be much farther from where the Lightning are now.
Tampa Bay is fourth in the Southeast Division with a 12-16-2 record, good for 26th in the league. Dwayne Roloson is in the middle of a terrible slump, with a 3.67 goals against average and .882 save percentage. In Roloson's last five starts, his goals against average has been a whopping 5.25. For the moment, he's effectively lost the starting goaltender role to Mathieu Garon, who has played more games with better statistics.
Something is very wrong in Tampa and no one seems to know what it is. Coach Guy Boucher refuses to pin the Lightning's troubles on any one area.
"It’s tough mentally on the players," Boucher said of the team's losses. "I am not going to point any fingers here. It's a team sport and there are moments in a franchise, moments in a season, in segments of a season that you don't understand why; it's just happening this way and you have to manage it mentally. It matters how you react to it and react the right way or else you sink lower."
Steven Stamkos, one of the few players who has been effective of late, leading the team with 33 points, said mistakes are getting the better of them. "We're finding ways to lose games right now," Stamkos said after a 5-4 loss to the New Jersey Devils Monday.
Some of the blame for the Lightning's troubles is going on Dwayne Roloson. Roloson says that he feels no different mentally or physically from last year, but something is off with the 42-year-old goaltender, and Roloson can't quite put his finger on the problem.
"I feel good, it's just things are finding ways in right now. There's ways you can analyze everything and come up with a reason, but if you keep trying to find something, then it becomes mind-boggling," Roloson said. "Looking at video, things are good. It's just circumstantial things are just going in."
Both Boucher and general manager Steve Yzerman maintain that they have confidence in Roloson, and won't give up on him. "He's having a tough time," Yzerman said. "He's working at it. He's trying to get back into form. If he sticks with it he can get back on track. In the meantime, myself and the coach, we need to do anything we can to help our team win games, so it's a tough spot for him."
"There are not many issues (with Roloson). He's just having a tough time," Boucher added. "I still have confidence that he will find his way back. He's very professional and he can't care more than that."
While Roloson works out his issues, the onus of winning hockey games comes to the offense. Unfortunately for the Lightning, the offense isn't scoring.
Stamkos, averaging over one point per game and tied for second in the league in goals, could be exempt from blame, but only six players on the roster have over 10 points this season. And one of those six players is a defenseman, Marc-Andre Bergeron, who has 22 points.
The Lightning are currently devoid of secondary scoring, which can cripple a team. Consider fourth-line winger Adam Hall, who last season scored 18 points. Through 28 games played this season, he has two points, and is on pace to end the season with just four points. Also, Teddy Purcell has just three points in the last 16 games.
The drop-off from last year in terms of goal-scoring is clearly debilitating. This season, the team is scoring an average of 2.52 goals per game -- 21st in the league. Last year, they finished in eighth place, scoring 2.94 goals per game.
Many of those were power play goals, an area where the team is struggling this year, and another factor in the team's goal-scoring slump. Last season, Tampa's power play unit was one of the best in the league at 20.5%. This year? 15%, and even worse, 11.1% on the road. At this point last season, the Lightning had 30 power play goals. This year, they've scored just 15.
"We are scoring some five-on-five goals, but on the power play we haven't been scoring,'' Boucher said. "We've been losing games because of turnovers and our power play really hasn't been good this year and that's the difference from last year."
"We have been trying different looks and we are not getting enough shots," Stamkos said of the Lightning power play. "It's not helping us win hockey games like it has in the past."
For the immediate future, attentions will be even more heavily focused on the offense and the secondary scorers, due to the loss of Martin St. Louis this week. St. Louis suffered a freak eye injury during practice last Thursday, and there is no timetable for his return. His absence will be costly to the Lightning -- St. Louis is second on the team in scoring with 22 points, and is a key component of the power play unit. Since St. Louis' injury, the Tampa has lost two of their three games.
If the Lightning don't wake up, the road ahead is going to become even more difficult. Boucher said that he doesn't expect to see St. Louis back in the lineup until after Christmas. "It's not replacing (St. Louis') attributes, it's compensating with character," Boucher said Monday. "Without him, we need to rally even more behind structure, behind team spirit, behind team play."
"Your attitude has to be that no matter who is out... either you see it as you're lacking something or you see it as an opportunity. It's a threat or it's a challenge," Boucher said. "And we have to choose a challenge."Photo credit: Getty Images