TAMPA — For a few brief moments late Wednesday afternoon, Steven Stamkos stood at the edge of the Lightning bench, stick in hand, firing pucks into an open net.
The sight of the top goal scorer in the game putting the puck in the net was welcomed three weeks after he broke his right leg. But it also served as a stinging reminder of what the Lightning are missing with Stamkos out of the lineup and the team struggling to score goals.
“Watching the games, knowing that you really can’t do anything, especially with this tough stretch that we are in right now, struggling offensively, that’s tough to watch,” Stamkos said.
For the first time in 10 years, the Lightning have been shut out in consecutive games as they get set to host Ottawa tonight. Take away an empty net goal at the end of last week’s victory against Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay has been kept off the scoreboard for 135 minutes of play.
Twice in the past two weeks the Lightning have lost a game 1-0. They have been shut out three times in five games, and despite allowing only seven goals in the past five games, they only have a 2-2-1 record to show for the defensive effort.
“It’s frustrating — you obviously want to score, and you realize that when a team only scores one goal, you figure you could at least score one and get it to overtime or something,” forward Alex Killorn said. “But most of our troubles are not necessarily because we are not scoring, it comes from certain different things.”
So as the team took to the ice late Wednesday, after arriving back in Tampa from Columbus around 3:30 a.m. because of mechanical issues with the team plane, Lightning coach Jon Cooper did some serious line shuffling for practice hoping to shake things up offensively.
Rookie Tyler Johnson centered a line with Marty St. Louis and Ondrej Palat, Valtteri Filppula was between Killorn and Nikita Kucherov, Nate Thompson worked with Teddy Purcell and J.T. Brown, while Dana Tyrell centered the fourth line with Richard Panik and B.J. Crombeen.
“Any time you get shut out twice in a row, the coach has to do something to shake things up and mix things up,” said Purcell, who has three goals and five assists in the past 20 games.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to point at the absence of Stamkos as the reason the Lightning are struggling to score goals. While losing the production from Stamkos is a factor, there is much more at play than the absence of one player from the lineup.
The power play is in a 4-for-46 slump, the veteran players have slowed production, and most of the quality scoring chances being generated by the team’s rookie talent have not found the back of the net.
And then there is the one element at play which is easily controlled by those on the ice — showing the right urgency on a more consistent basis.
“Our work ethic is something that you can control, and I’m not sitting here and saying the guys didn’t work hard (Tuesday in Columbus), but there’s been more zip in their game than there was (Tuesday) night,” Cooper said. “It’s one of 82, and I think we have much more in us than we brought (Tuesday) night. A lot of the things that were lacking right now are not X’s and O’s. It’s inside and we have to pull that out of them.”
During the current scoring drought, not enough forwards are driving to the net, taking up space in front of the goaltender and creating traffic. For the most part, the Lightning have skated away from or around the dirty areas of the ice, where scoring chances are often created and goals are often scored.
That’s the basic mindset Cooper wants his team to regain.
“We are actually taking short cuts and cheating the game a little bit to get results, thinking that is what is going to work, and it doesn’t work,” Cooper said. “We kind of have to get back to a little bit more sandpaper to get pucks into the net. ... We just have to cut down a little bit on the skill and throw in a little bit more will and we’ll be fine.”