TAMPA, FL -- The Tampa Bay Lightning has lost seven of their past eight games and continue to struggle through injuries and with consistency during the early part of this season. While teams will be tested over the course of an 82-game schedule, this most recent stretch of games has been concerning for the club.
After captain Steven Stamkos tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee on Nov. 15, the Lightning won three of their next four games from Nov. 17 to Nov. 23. It was an encouraging run for a team that had just lost their captain for approximately four months, but since then, things have taken a sharp turn.
It began with a 5-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at home on Nov. 25 -- a game head coach Jon Cooper called one of two 'stinkers' at that point in the season. The other was a 6-1 drumming by the New York Rangers on Oct. 30. After the first 'stinker', the Lightning responded by going 8-3-1, including a four-game winning streak on the road.
The team's performance after the second 'stinker' has been a bit different.
The Lightning has struggled to score goals, being outscored 25-12 the past seven games and have given up an average of more than 32 shots on goal during the same period. Mental lapses, careless turnovers and inconsistency over the course of 60-minute games have also been an issue for the club.
While some attributed the team's struggles to playing nine road contests during a 15-game November, rest hasnít seemed to change very much. After the teamís first three-day break all season long, they returned to action on Dec. 8 and outplayed the Vancouver Canucks for the first few minutes of the game. However, the Canucks scored on their first shot of the game early in the first period and the Lightning never found their groove in the 5-1 loss.
Two days later, the Lightning faced the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first time since being eliminated in seven games during the 2016 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning had a 3-1 lead midway through the contest, but the Penguins scored three unanswered goals on the power play to secure a 4-3 win.
It was the latest chapter in the current struggles the Lightning is going through right now.
As the team prepares for a three-game road trip through Western Canada, the question has now become, how do they turn things around?
As ridiculous as it may sound, donít panic too much yet. For all the struggles and inconsistency the Lightning have had of late, itís probably hard to believe they had virtually the same record at this point a season ago. They were 14-12-3 through 29 games in 2015-16 and will carry a 14-13-2 record into Calgary to face the Flames on Wednesday.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper touched on this after the teamís loss to the Penguins on Dec. 10.
"Weíve gone through, and this is one of the worst, if not the worst in the past few years, but you go through the resume of our last three or four years and the ups and downs this team has had, this is just a different one, thatís all,'' Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said, according to Erik Erlendsson of Lightninginsider.com. "Weíve always found a way to struggle and emerge and Iím sure weíll find it again.''
The Lightning balanced their inconsistent start early last season by stringing together seven straight wins in January and a nine-game win streak that spanned from near the end of February and into early March.
While staying calm is important, the Lightning canít expect the past to simply repeat itself. There are things the team must turn around quickly. The parity in the present-day NHL means a team cannot afford to play poorly for too long and they are approaching that point right now.
The team needs offensive production from its top forwards in order to be successful without Stamkos. While Jonathan Drouin has registered six points in his past four games played, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have combined for just one assist in the Lightningís last three contests.
The most glaring issue for the team, and one that may receive assistance in the form of a trade at some point, has been on the defensive side of the puck. The Lightning has given up four or more goals 10 times this season -- six of those have come during the teamís most recent eight-game stretch. Itís an alarming trend for the club thatís not been solved despite numerous call-ups from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch.
The teamís issues defensively cannot be isolated just to the blue line. The Lightning has given up numerous turnovers in their own end and in the neutral zone, missing routine passes or losing the puck and directly resulting in goals by their opponents.
General manager Steve Yzerman sounds willing to ride things out a little longer with the current roster and by utilizing some of the teamís minor league depth from Syracuse. If he opts to make a trade, however, it seems unlikely he would do so before the end of 2016, but anything is possible. He was able to keep this roster virtually the same this offseason for the third straight year and heíll want to avoid a major change to the team if he can.
But if the Lightning is unable to turn things around, and do so quickly, his hand may be forced to make a move. The picture will become clearer for Yzerman and Co. over the next couple of weeks.
Steve DiOssi is the Tampa Bay Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.