Lightning’s Flickering Playoff Hopes: Fan’s Look

On Monday, March 19, the Tampa Bay Lightning likely suffered a fatal blow to any fleeting hopes of obtaining a playoff berth in the 2011-12 season.

Even 50 goal-scorer Steven Stamkos has struggled during a rough stretch where the Tampa Bay Lightning have dropped 6 of 7 games
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Embarrassingly falling at home to the Buffalo Sabres by the score of 7-3, the loss not only deprived the squad of two much-needed points, but it aided the cause of their opposition, who is making a late charge for the conference's final post-season spot.

The Lightning have now dropped 6 of the past 7 games, including an uncharacteristic 5 losses at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Injuries certainly have played a role, as the team continues to compete without 8 regular contributors, such as captain Vincent Lecavalier and primary goalie Mathieu Garon.

However, in spite of that deficiency, Tampa Bay is simply not playing good hockey. In all of the club's recent losses during this rocky stretch, it has been unable to score more than 3 goals in a game.

In fact, it's gotten so bad that even star center Steven Stamkos has been unable to find the back of the net. Stamkos made headlines last week by notching 2 tallies in a win over the Boston Bruins, giving him the magical number of 50 for the second time in his 4 year career.

However, apart from that pair of goals, Stamkos has been held scoreless in 5 of the past 6 games. The Lightning are struggling to sustain consistent offensive efforts and spending too much time in their own zone. Stamkos failed even to manage a single shot on goal during the loss to Buffalo.

Scoring is certainly down across the league, but if a team cannot consistently produce goals, it must be dependent on goal-tending limiting the firepower of opponents. When Garon was healthy, he quietly morphed into a reliable net-minder, sporting a 2.85 GAA and .901 save percentage in 48 games.

Injuring his groin in a 7-3 loss to the Ottawa Senators on March 6, Garon is likely out for the rest of the season. Haunted by the decision not to address the goal-tending at the trade deadline, the Lightning's first response was to summon rookie Dustin Tokarski from the minor leagues.

Tokarski received 5 starts and initially looked strong in an overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in his debut. However, since that time the 22 year-old has appeared over-matched and Coach Guy Boucher was forced to seek a replacement in each of his last two appearances for surrendering early goals.

Indeed, Tokarski was yanked from Monday's game against Buffalo midway through the 2nd period after yielding 4 tallies on a mere 15 shots.

That contest will likely be his final game as Bolt during the current campaign, as Tokarski was banished to the AHL earlier this week. His replacement is the newly-signed Sebastien Caron. The 31 year-old free agent last played in the NHL in 2007 and most recently competed in Germany. He possess 84 NHL starts in a decade long career with 4 different clubs.

Caron's previous best opportunity occurred when playing for the pre Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins. Showing little promise, he was soon supplanted by 2003's first overall draft pick Marc-Andre Fleury and has been a journeyman ever since.

With 10 games remaining in the final 2 1/2 weeks, Tampa Bay sits 9 points removed from the playoffs in the 13th position in the Eastern Conference.

The Bolts skate again on Thursday, March 22, in a home game against the Edmonton Oilers. It will be the first meeting of the season for these clubs that appear destined to miss the forthcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.

Sources:

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Jeff Briscoe is a hockey fan from Florida, who follows the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also covers Tampa Bay's ECHL minor league affiliate, the Florida Everblades, and co-hosts the Sports Train radio show.

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Updated Thursday, Mar 22, 2012