The Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves at a critical juncture in December as they aim to regain their playoff positioning after a challenging November. Traditionally, this month has been pivotal for the Lightning, allowing them to solidify their spot in the postseason. However, recent setbacks, including two three-game losing streaks and a 6-7-2 record in November, have intensified the importance of a December momentum swing.
Despite standout performances from Nikita Kucherov, leading the league in scoring with 28 points, and Brayden Point ranking sixth with 20, the Lightning faced difficulties in November. A notable turning point occurred against Pittsburgh when a two-goal lead slipped away due to offensive-zone turnovers by Kucherov, resulting in breakaways and a 4-2 loss. The challenging start to December, marked by an 8-1 loss to the Stars, further compounded their situation, leaving them at 10-10-5 and outside the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
The Lightning’s journey this season has seen significant changes, with 12 of the 23 opening night roster players not present last season. Early struggles to adapt to a new defensive system and the absence of star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy due to back surgery added to the initial challenges.
Defenseman Victor Hedman acknowledged the team’s progress but emphasized the need to convert improvements into positive results. While defensive lapses persist, the Lightning’s offensive stars have shouldered the scoring load. However, instances of attempting overly intricate plays instead of a simpler game plan have led to costly mistakes.
Drawing from the past two seasons, December has historically been a period of strength for the Lightning, with improvements in defensive play proving instrumental. Last season, a 10-3-0 record in December solidified their playoff position and widened the gap with division rivals. Similarly, two seasons ago, a 9-2-1 December run propelled them to the top of the Atlantic Division.
The current season presents a tougher challenge as the conference and division competition intensify. With three teams, including the Lightning, within six points of the third-place spot in the Atlantic, the race for playoff contention is highly competitive. The return of Vasilevskiy strengthens the Lightning’s overall game, but eliminating self-inflicted mistakes is crucial to a successful December run.
Captain Steven Stamkos emphasized the collective effort needed to simplify their play and eliminate costly errors. As the Lightning strive to replicate the defensive improvements seen in previous Decembers, their ability to overcome self-induced setbacks will be key to reclaiming a solid playoff position by the end of this crucial month.