Lightning Pushed Around at Buffalo

Buffalo Sabres forward Sam Reinhart (23) and Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman (6) go after the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Tampa Bay’s second loss in two days has them in a division race

When the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference is facing the team with the worst record in the conference, one might expect a game where one team controls the pace of the action, never trails, and keeps the opponent at arm’s length en route to victory.

What you would not expect is that the Buffalo Sabres were the team on the winning side of such a game, over the Tampa Bay Lightning. With the Bolts coming in on the second leg of a back-to-back set of road games, Tampa Bay looked sluggish and got pushed around by the Sabres.

Buffalo won the game by a score of 5-3. They did this without their best player, as Jack Eichel is fighting an injury at the moment. While one could easily point out that goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was on the bench, and Louis Domingue had his hands full in relief of the typical starter, the surprising part was that the Lightning got more or less outplayed by one of the NHL’s bottom feeders.

A loss like that can get a fanbase to take a hard look at a team’s shortcomings. What they see in the Lightning might surprise some people. Since the start of 2018, the Lightning are 10-8-1. In those 19 teams, the shoot-first Lightning have been outshot 12 times. They’ve been allowing opponents to push the pace of the game, and as a result the Lightning rarely look like they’re fully in control of the action in recent weeks.

This sluggish January and early February has opened the Atlantic Division up now. With a 5-2 Boston win over Calgary on Tuesday night, the Bruins pulled to within one point of the first place Lightning. Since Boston has played two fewer games than the Bolts, the one point difference matters little. Tampa Bay is in a division race now.

In fairness, 10-8-1 is a winning record. The Lightning are 6-4 in their last ten games, which is still a somewhat healthy clip. It can be chalked up to their credit that Tampa Bay continues to find ways to win even when the Lightning have been a bit out of sorts.

Perhaps falling back into a tighter division race can help serve as a wake-up call for the Lightning, the thing that keeps them sharp and ready for the playoffs in a way a lot of recent Presidents Trophy winners simply weren’t. Either way, it has made the challenge in front of the team very clear.

The trade deadline is approaching, and the Lightning look like they could be buyers. Tampa Bay is likely in the market for, and should be in the market for, a veteran defenseman to help out along the blue line. Even after Victor Hedman returned from his January injury, the Lightning have struggled defensively. A seasoned veteran would allow coach Jon Cooper to try some new defensive pairings and see how they work.

The question isn’t really whether the Lightning are interested in a defenseman. With the team’s standing right now, the organization should be focused on a deep playoff run and is very likely looking at options on the market right now. The real question is, how much are the Lightning willing to pay to land the help they need?

To land a solid defenseman, the Lightning may have to surrender prospects, draft picks, and a player who contributes to the team currently on the level of, say, Vladislav Namestnikov. That’s not only a big haul, it’s the kind of risky move that even championship-minded teams have to take a moment to think about.

Making matters worse, that’s the best trade scenario for the Lightning. It gets worse if the other team starts asking about Brayden Point or Mikhail Sergachev. Both would be unlikely to be dealt, but it isn’t impossible to imagine Tampa Bay potentially going that route.

The Lightning return home to Amalie Arena on Thursday, where they’ll take on the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit beat Anaheim on Tuesday night to pull their record to 23-23-9, but they’re in the bottom ten teams in the league in just about every statistical category. Center Dylan Larkin leads the Red Wings in points with 41.

This is exactly the kind of game that the Lightning need to win. They cannot afford to drop games to teams they should beat with the surging Bruins breathing down their necks. There is a considerable advantage to winning a division, and the Lightning need to focus on that before talk turns to the playoffs and the Stanley Cup.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.