Why Lightning shouldn't hit panic button despite rough stretch

Head coach Jon Cooper is confident his leaders will turn things around when it matters most.

Benching your three best forwards in a failed motivational tactic, followed up by a 6-0 loss at the hands of one of your leading rivals for conference supremacy, would ordinarily constitute enough reasons to panic. But when you’re the class of the Eastern Conference like the Tampa Bay Lightning, winning finds a way to cure all, and though they just went through a weekend for hell, count the three-time conference champion out at your own peril.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper benched Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point for the third period of Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Sabres, believing that the superstar trio wasn’t putting the team in the best position to win. This rationale could’ve been easily manipulated, but Cooper is one of the most transparent quotes in the league and explained that the standard is the standard, regardless of your resume.

“This team's been unbelievable for a decade," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said of his decision to bench his star forwards. "You take the three finals. Well, there's a reason a lot of that's happened. We have a set of standards here that everybody adheres to. It's not pick and choose. It's everybody."

Cooper’s decision didn’t pay immediate dividends — the following night, Carolina dominated Tampa Bay to the tune of a 6-0 victory, but that may say more about the Hurricanes’ clinical defense than it does about the Lightning overall. Tampa Bay registered just 14 shots, but this is a team that is brimming in confidence earned from years past.

"We're in a rut right now, and at some point you've just got to work your way out of it," Cooper said following Sunday’s blowout loss. "Guys have got routines. They're used to making plays, and when that's off a bit, guys start questioning themselves.

"We're just not executing right now, so it's slowing our game down. As coaches, we've got to instill some confidence in these guys. We've got a veteran group in there, so we'll be all right."

Tampa Bay’s stars — yes, the ones getting benched — along with Victor Hedman (more on him below) and Andrei Vasilevskiy are often cited as the primary reasons behind the dynasty. Under Cooper’s supervision, the Lightning’s calling card often has been its lineup flexibility, as they’ve moved Stamkos and Point all over the lineup in order to provide the forward groups with different looks, banging away until a combination sticks. Not only can the Bolts slide Stamkos and Point throughout the top three scoring lines, they can also move around Alex Killorn, defensive stalwart Anthony Cirelli and winger Brandon Hagel, who is just short of a 30-goal pace, all throughout the lineup as well. Cooper has plenty of time to experiment with his lines, and the league’s playoff format is doing him some favors.

The Lightning are struggling through a five-game losing streak, but the three-time Eastern Conference champions aren't concerned about their long-term success. (Getty Images)
The Lightning are struggling through a five-game losing streak, but the three-time Eastern Conference champions aren't concerned about their long-term success. (Getty Images)

Barring further disaster, we know the Lightning will square off against the Maple Leafs in the first round for the second consecutive year. Setting aside the fact that both teams are using the final 19 games of the regular season to test out their optimal lineups, there’s virtually nothing to lose. Tampa Bay will eventually snap out of its tailspin and then tailor its game plan to suppress Toronto’s slightly superior shot-creation. Last season, both teams were considered evenly matched, a notion that was furthered through a seven-game classic where depth forward Nick Paul emerged as the unlikely hero, notching a brace for the Lightning in a 2-1 Game 7 victory. This year, the Maple Leafs and the Lightning are once again as evenly matched as it gets, and Toronto will likely have home-ice advantage again and a five-game losing skid in the regular season isn’t going to rattle a group that has won the conference three years running.

It’s not like Tampa Bay’s star forward trio have played poorly this season, either. Kucherov ranks third in NHL scoring with 88 points, Point is in 16th with 73 points, while Stamkos is in 27th place with 65 points. Point is among the top-10 individual scoring chance creators at 5-on-5, while Hagel, Killorn, Nick Paul and Ross Colton have provided the ancillary scoring that was expected of them. It’s way too early to write the Lightning off.

If there is one legitimate area of concern, it’s Victor Hedman’s injury status. Hedman got awkwardly tangled up with Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov, left Sunday’s game, returned for one shift before exiting the contest for good. Hedman isn’t playing at a Norris level this year and you could argue that Mikhail Sergachev is Tampa Bay’s best defender at the moment, but he still provides elite offense for his position and has been a staple of the dynasty. Hedman will be re-evaluated Monday, and if he’s alright for the playoffs, we don’t anticipate any major cracks in the armor.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is the Lightning’s trump card. Boston’s Linus Ullmark is the runaway Vezina favourite this season and New York’s Igor Shesterkin took the award last year, but on any given day, Vasilevskiy is still the best goaltender in the world. Vasilevskiy ranks sixth in goals saved above expected via MoneyPuck, and he’d be the near-unanimous choice for the goalie you’d want during a playoff game. Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2021 and he can turn his game up to a new level at a moment’s notice. You can bench the top three forwards but "Vasi" will always find a way to bail his team out — it’s often been remarked that it’s unfair that a team as talented as the Lightning also boast a world-class goaltender in the prime of his career. When you think the sky is falling, remember Vasilevskiy is there to pick up the pieces.

A five-game losing streak would be cause for concern for any team, but the Lightning have the championship resolve that few others have, along with a playoff opponent that is written in stone. We’ll see what happens this spring but if the Lightning defeat the Maple Leafs again, this March skid will reveal itself as an aberration.