Trying to make sense of the Lightning’s inconsistency on the road

TAMPA — Feeling nauseous from the roller-coaster ride the Lightning took you on throughout their just-completed four-game road trip?

Confused about what to make of this Tampa Bay team game-to-game and period-to-period just 13 contests into the regular season?

Wondering how a team can look so focused and resilient one moment, and so lackadaisical and lost the next?

Simply based on the results, you can’t consider the latest trip unsuccessful. The Lightning earned five of a possible eight points and took points, including two wins, in all three games against division opponents. They woke up Wednesday sitting in second place in the Atlantic Division, trailing only the Bruins.

But taking into consideration how the Lightning could have come out of this road trip — netting just one point in two games in Columbus and Toronto, games in which they took leads into the third-period — the Lightning returned home knowing they left a lot on the table. If they had closed out both of those games, they would only be trailing Boston by two points instead of five.

It’s the road where inconsistent play haunts a team, and the Lightning know that well.

Closing out games needs work

One of the key characteristics of the Lightning’s Stanley Cup teams was that once they took a lead into the third period, they willed themselves to win. They clamped down in the defensive zone, blocked shots, closed off the front of the net and remained aggressive offensively.

This year’s team hasn’t shown that killer mentality, a flaw that goes back to last season, particularly in the playoffs. Some of it can be attributed to new personnel, but far too often, the players making mistakes that lead to the opposing team rallying are players who have been through deep playoffs runs in Tampa Bay.

Recently, there’s been a big difference in the Lightning early in games and late. No team is better in the first period. Their plus-9 in the opening period leads the league, and they saw quick starts in Toronto and Montreal (outscoring opponents a combined 8-1 in those games).

Contrast that to the third period and overtime, where the Lightning are minus-10. The 20 goals they have allowed in the third are tied for most in the league, and no other team already has four OT losses.

On this road trip, the Lightning were outscored 12-4 in the third period and overtime. This is a trend, because the Lightning had positive plus-minus in the first and second periods (plus-3) and negative in the third and overtime (minus-5) last postseason against Toronto.

Urgency is a real thing, and while it can’t be evaluated statistically, the Lightning’s blown leads showed a lack of it. They were caught flat-footed too often. The Toronto game was the biggest example, as Auston Matthews’ two goals came on blowing through the middle of the ice against Lightning players seemingly caught off guard.

And that’s what made that game so baffling; the Lightning have seen that script play out before, and they’ve typically been a team that’s good at not letting history repeat itself.

Players will tell you that the confidence with becoming a good closer is built over time. Getting that mojo back will be a major obstacle this team faces. Protecting the 4-0 lead in Montreal is a start, but the Lightning still gave up three goals in the third. That’s not good enough.

More to show in 5-on-5 play

The Lightning’s power-play unit continues to be one of the best in the league — ranked third entering Wednesday at a 34.1% success rate — as it should be given the firepower. And Tampa Bay’s penalty kill, despite massive personnel changes, has performed well despite a recent dip; it ranked sixth in the league with an 87.2% success rate.

But in 5-on-5 play, the Lightning have actually allowed more goals than they have produced. On this road trip, their dependence on the power play was evident.

The Lightning did not score a power-play goal in their collapse in Columbus, but when you take away their 15-1 shot-attempt advantage on the power play, their 5-on-5 shot-attempts were pretty even (52-49 Tampa Bay); the Lightning allowed 20 5-on-5 shot attempts in the third. The Blue Jackets scored a pair of even-strength goals late, turning a one-goal Lightning lead into a one-goal deficit before an empty-netter made it a two-goal game.

The Lightning scored two power-play goals against both Toronto and Montreal. In Toronto, the Leafs had a 27-24 edge in shot attempts in the third, which was entirely played in 5-on-5; 20 of those attempts were on goal, as opposed to just 11 Tampa Bay attempts. The Lightning missed the net six times and had seven shots blocked. So one team was getting more opportunities to score late, and a team like Toronto will eventually take advantage of that kind of edge.

The Canadiens game became riddled with penalties, and both of the Lightning’s power-play goals came at important times.

Alex Barre-Boulet gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead just before the midway point in the first. And Nick Paul’s third-period goal gave Tampa Bay a 5-2 lead and quelled the Canadiens’ mounting surge. But in total, Montreal had more 5-on-5 shot attempts, 41-38, and even in the first period that saw Tampa Bay go up 4-0, Montreal out-attempted the Lightning in 5-on-5 by a 12-11 margin.

Roster moves

The Lightning on Wednesday recalled forward Waltteri Merela from AHL Syracuse. Merela will take an active roster spot for forward Conor Sheary, who is headed to injured reserve after leaving Tuesday’s game in Montreal following just one shift with an upper-body injury. Merela was optioned to the Crunch on Monday to make roster space for forward Tyler Motte, who returned from an opening night injury that landed him on IR.

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