Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning made a deep run in the playoffs, benefiting from new coach Guy Boucher's famous "1-3-1" system and spectacular goaltending by Dwayne Roloson. This season, the Lightning have struggled out of the gate with a 4-4-2 record.
They won three straight games before falling to Nashville on Thursday night, but the lackluster start even made general manager Steve Yzerman a little nervous.
"Quite simply, we have to play better," Yzerman told the St. Petersburg Times. "All teams go through stretches in a season where they struggle. Ours is just right off the bat."
A lot of concern is hovering over Roloson. Statistically, he finished the 2010-2011 season among the top 20 NHL goaltenders with a .912 save percentage and 2.56 goals against average. In the playoffs, he improved that to a .924 save percentage and 2.51 GAA in 17 postseason contests. Among goaltenders who played in more than one playoff round, only the Bruins' Tim Thomas had better stats.
Yet after four starts this season, Roloson sat near the bottom of the list in terms of statistics, with an .858 save percentage and an uncharacteristic 5.11 GAA to match his 1-2-1 record. In response, backup Mathieu Garon has gotten the past five starts, and has won three straight games. Roloson replaced Garon in Thursday's loss to the Predators and stopped all 10 shots he faced in relief, but he's yet to overcome the slow start.
Despite Roloson's struggles, the Lightning maintain that he is still their starting goaltender.
"My faith in (Roloson) has not changed at all. Not at all," Boucher said to the Times. "I have always believed in him, not only what he does on the ice, but off the ice as well. Specifically, I believe in his approach to get his game back when it's not at its best."
The team especially avoided blaming the age issue. Roloson turned 42 on Oct. 12, but Boucher points more to the pressure that a goaltender experiences playing a position that is always under a microscope.
"Every goalie goes through this," Boucher said to the Times.
Garon has ably stepped up, going 3-1-1 with a .942 save percentage and 1.78 GAA going into Thursday's game.
The rest of the team is appearing to rally from its disappointing start. Defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron is leading the team in scoring with 10 points (two goals, eight assists).
Though Bergeron is known as an offensive defenseman, he says he is surprised at his production so far.
"It's not something you expect or are focusing on," Bergeron told reporters.
Bergeron has struggled with other teams in the NHL, but Boucher is having him focus on letting plays unfold instead of trying too hard. Boucher told reporters he is instructing Bergeron "to wait for opportunities rather than trying to force them."
Making a difference for the Lightning on the front end is 19-year-old winger Brett Connolly, who will officially spend the remainder of the year with Tampa and not his junior team Prince George. Connolly, the Lightning's first-round pick in 2010, has yet to score his first NHL goal, but he has two assists to his name.
Frequently called one of the most effective players on the ice, Connolly also shares the team's plus/minus lead with Victor Hedman at plus-5. As Yzerman told the Times, "We feel Brett's shown that he belongs in the NHL and makes our team better."
Connolly has been become a linemate with Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, and was told Tuesday night that he would stay in the NHL rather than return to juniors.
With linemates like those, a breakout can't be far behind.
Southeast Division Notes:
The Winnipeg Jets sent 2011 first-rounder Mark Scheifele back to the Barrie Colts after playing seven games with the Jets. The center scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 19 in a 4-3 shootout loss to Toronto. ... The Washington Capitals are still undefeated, their 7-0-0 start representing a franchise record. After routing the Detroit Red Wings in a 7-1 contest Saturday, the Capitals are the only undefeated team in the league. The Capitals are buoyed by Tomas Vokoun in net, who, since a poor showing in his debut against the Lightning has been impressive in net. He boasts a .940 save percentage and 1.80 GAA. The Capitals' power-play unit has been effective, standing second in the league at 29.6 percent. ... With the offense struggling in Carolina, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice is juggling lines with the hopes of providing a spark. Jeff Skinner joined a line with Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu, now referred to as the "Finns and Skins" line. Chad LaRose and Jiri Tlusty have moved up to the first line with captain Eric Staal. "The structure's still the same, but new looks," Maurice told the Hurricanes website. ... The Florida Panthers made a big trade Saturday, sending top winger David Booth and C Steven Reinprecht, as well as a 2012 third-round pick, to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson. "This trade gives us more depth as both RW Mikael Samuelsson and LW Marco Sturm are first-class, top-notch, two-way NHL players," Florida general manager Dale Tallon said in a press release. Samuelsson is currently undergoing treatment for a groin injury, but will join the Panthers once he is healthy.