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How Lightning’s slim margin for error put them on thin ice in Winnipeg

TAMPA — The Lightning felt they played well enough Tuesday in Winnipeg to earn points. Despite taking a first-intermission lead and trailing by only a goal entering the third period, they opened their three-game road trip with a 4-2 loss to the Jets.

Tampa Bay entered Wednesday one point out of the last Eastern Conference playoff spot. Because they’ve played more games than many other teams, they are tied for 11th in the conference in points percentage.

They’ve left themselves a razor-thin margin for error — or misfortune, which came into play Tuesday — and created an uphill climb for themselves with wildly inconsistent play as they approach the midseason marker.

As of now, the Lightning are on pace for 86 points, hardly enough to ensure a playoff spot. They must play their best hockey in the second half or put themselves in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2016-17.

In recent years, the Lightning were able to solidify their playoff position by Jan. 1, which allowed for some second-half hiccups.

This year, they can’t afford that luxury. Here’s why.

Blue-line injuries have tested depth

The Lightning have overcome their share of injuries this season, but a barrage to their defense corps has tested their depth.

Mikhail Sergachev, who was only expected to miss a week after taking a puck to the back of his left foot on Dec. 19, has missed six games. Haydn Fleury did an admirable job filling in but is week-to-week after taking a hard hit on New Year’s Eve against Montreal. Erik Cernak also exited that game after taking a hard hit.

The injuries forced the Lightning to play with five defensemen Tuesday. Though they played well with just four when Cernak and Fleury were knocked out mid-game against the Canadiens, the challenge of playing short-handed was evident two nights later in Winnipeg.

Players like the extra minutes, so they play more freely and don’t worry about making a mistake. But when they are hemmed in their own end for long stretches, shifts can quickly catch up with them, as was the case Tuesday.

When some of the injured players are your top penalty killers (like Sergachev and Cernak), it becomes important to avoid taking penalties. Tuesday, back-to-back penalties early in the third clearly took the steam out of the Lightning.

Stars’ mistakes have altered games

When you need points, your top players have to lead the way. And with the exception of league points leader Nikita Kucherov, there’s been some uneven play from the team’s other stars. Even Kucherov has made his share of plays he’d like back, especially with some costly turnovers while trying to do too much.

Tuesday, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was called for tripping right after the Lightning killed off a tripping penalty against Kucherov. Whether the call should have been made — it rarely is — could be debated, but it put pressure on the Lightning’s penalty kill.

It wasn’t Vasilevskiy’s costliest mistake. While trying to clear a puck, he was overwhelmed by the Winnipeg forecheck, and his attempt to get the puck to Conor Sheary at the blue line was intercepted by former Lightning forward Vladislav Namestnikov.

It gave Nikolaj Ehlers an open look in the slot that Vasilevskiy had little chance against. The goal turned the tide, giving the Jets a two-goal lead. And given the way Winnipeg has played defense, it was tough for Tampa Bay to get back into the game.

Of course, the Lightning wouldn’t want anyone other than Vasilevskiy in net. But in the rare instances when their best players make costly mistakes, they seem to be game-altering ones.

Roster crunch is even more real

Having the personnel to help is one thing. Being able to call it up is another challenge, especially when every dollar matters with the Lightning squeezed up against the salary cap.

Tampa Bay is used to cap gymnastics, but injuries have forced it to improvise. After it was determined that Fleury’s injury was week to week, he was placed on long-term injured reserve. That created enough cap space to call up Philippe Myers, who carries a significant $1.4 million hit.

The Lightning had the option of playing short a man (under 18 skaters) Tuesday to trigger a roster emergency exemption to call up a player for Thursday’s game in Minnesota at a $0 cap hit. But since they elected to play with an extra forward to give them 18 skaters, they don’t have that ability.

That might mean the team believes Sergachev or Cernak should be ready by Thursday. Otherwise, it will result in a long night for the five defensemen who have logged longer ice times, something that isn’t sustainable over the long haul. It’s also an indicator this will be the roster the Lightning will need to lean on moving forward to make the postseason. There’s not room for much movement.

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