Tampa Bay Lightning need to figure it out quick

TAMPA, FL - DECEMBER 19: Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) in the 2nd period of the NHL game between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning on December 19, 2019 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The argument in favour of the Tampa Bay Lightning getting back into the playoff picture has always been pretty straightforward: “Look at that roster.”

The fact that they’ve been in the lower end of the Eastern Conference standings has been a function of an inexplicable slow start, yes, but also the fact that they’ve spent almost the entire season with between three and six games in hand on everyone in front of them.

Even now, they sit ninth in the East by points (38 in 33 games) but seventh by points percentage (.576). Indeed, they’re only a point behind Buffalo and two back of Montreal with three and two games in hand, respectively, and that seems to have them well-positioned to make a serious run in the last 49 games of the year.

But they’re five points back of Philadelphia for the final Wild Card spot with two fewer games played, and six behind Pittsburgh with one in hand. That’s actually starting to become a real problem; the stunning overtime loss to Dallas last night that saw them blow a 3-1 lead they held late in the second period meant the games-in-hand advantage over the Metro teams was effectively burned.

Strange as it is to say, it looks like Tampa’s only way into the playoffs is through the divisional slots rather than the Wild Cards. Unfortunately, that limits their window of opportunity. It’s not that Montreal or Buffalo represent any sort of significant roadblock, but when you’ve used up most of your extra games and only gotten within a couple points of two objectively much-worse-on-paper teams, you gotta play very well for a longer period of time just to make up the lost ground.

The Lightning are currently on pace for just 94 points (yikes!), and while that puts them ahead of everyone but the Bruins in their division — obviously including Toronto’s pace for just 89 — the margin for error diminishes by the day. This team is quite capable of winning five, seven, nine games straight with little difficulty, and that would right the ship in a hurry, but the fact is their longest streak this year was three games, against the Sabres (twice) and the Rangers. They’re coming to the end of a run in which they’ve played 13 of 18 at home, but they’re only 9-7-2 in those games. None of it is good enough to instill a lot of confidence.

It’s not as though we don’t know what Tampa’s problem is and has been all season, either. By expected goals, they’re among the best teams in the league (fourth in adjusted xG difference per 60). In fact, after that riotous regular season in 2018-19, the team’s expected-goals for per hour in all situations is totally unchanged, and its expected-goals against per hour has gotten three-hundredths of a goal worse.

But they can’t get a save at 5-on-5 (eighth-worst adjusted save percentage in the league there) and their shooting efficiency hasn’t been as high as it was last year, dropping from a shade over 12 percent to a shade under 10.4 percent. So it doesn’t matter that they still score more goals per hour than everyone but Colorado the results have things tighter than you’d think.

The problem is, of course, that they can’t do anything about this problem. The team is playing well enough in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy (.906) and Curtis McElhinney (.898) that firing the coach, who’s among the best in the league, can’t be a legitimate option. As you might have heard, this team has also spent lavishly to keep its excellent core together — every skater but the bottom of the lineup is in a decent WAR territory right now. Apart from trading a Tyler Johnson or Yanni Gourde (both of whom have no-trades) there’s not a ton of wiggle room there.

Unfortunately, anyone making more than $1.3 million on this team except the backup goalie who stinks this year has that same no-trade protection, save for reigning league MVP Nikita Kucherov and actual team MVP Brayden Point, neither of whom are going anywhere.

The fact that the goalies are third and 22nd from the bottom in goals saved above expected, both well below zero and a combined minus-12.93, is what’s killing them. Call that four standings points; with those wins, Tampa is comfortably second in the division right now, sitting at least two clear of Montreal. And still has the games in hand.

Can’t do anything about Vasilevskiy, in the last year of his cheap-o deal before he gets bumped up to $9.5 million, and McElhinney is on an expensive-ish 35-plus contract so he’s probably not going anywhere, either.

So the only real hope is that this group, as constituted, can turn it around. They certainly have the talent to do it, and they’re in a division where getting into the postseason shouldn’t be too hard. But the clock is ticking, and has been for a while.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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