Lightning in uncharted territory after 4-1 loss to Sabres
TAMPA — There aren't many easy solutions when it comes to the Lightning's stunning funk.
But coach Jon Cooper made one thing abundantly clear after Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the Sabres at Amalie Arena, its seventh loss in the last nine games.
"First of all, this season isn't last season," Cooper said. "There's a big difference between the two."
"There's no comparison," captain Steven Stamkos said.
The Lightning look like a shell of the team that reached the Stanley Cup Final just five months ago. Cooper said they'll have a different journey this time, and it's certainly going to be more difficult after Tampa Bay fell under .500. The Lightning (7-8-2), the highest scoring team in the league last season, was held to one goal or less for the eighth time, and now finds itself in uncharted territory, below .500 this late in the season for the first time since missing the playoffs in 2012–13.
"We're not a fragile team, but when things aren't going well, you're a human being, you start to doubt yourself," Stamkos said. "You start to doubt things. We can't let that creep in. You're not going to feel that way when things are going well and the team is scoring and we're winning last year. We've got to have that sense of urgency."
The Lightning didn't show nearly enough desperation in a lethargic first period Tuesday. This had the feeling of a response game, a slumping team back at home against the Sabres, which Tampa Bay beat three times this season. But the Lightning continued to dig a hole, putting itself at ninth in the Eastern Conference one-fifth of the way through its season.
"Teams go through funks like this, you have to stop it before it gets too big and before you dig yourself too big of a hole," Stamkos said. "We've had a lot of success and expectations were to pick up right where we left off. Sometimes you need a reality check. There's no more margin for error.
"That's why it's got to be fixed now. You look at (Los Angeles), Boston last year, got off to slow starts and chasing. Are they both playoff teams? Yeah. Did they get in? No. We believe we're a playoff team, we've just got to find a way to get back in the mix."
Throughout the Lightning's scoring struggles, it could at least depend on strong goaltending. But on Tuesday, even that didn't help as Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed a bad, back-breaking goal five minutes into the third, a weak wrist shot from Marcus Foligno that flubbed in off Vasilevskiy's glove.
"That's for sure my bad," Vasilevskiy said. "Who knows? If not for goal, maybe we can tie the game, and maybe win for sure."
The Lightning did get better as the game went on, veteran wing Ryan Callahan a catalyst. But it's had to play from behind too many times, the result of leading just once after the first period. Stamkos scored a power play goal to tie it early in the second, but Tampa Bay gave up the go-ahead goal 48 seconds later.
Tampa Bay continued to get robbed by an opposing goaltender, including Chad Johnson's stellar stop on Nikita Kucherov in the second. "Probably the save of the last maybe five, 10 years," Stamkos said.
Callahan said there's no turning back, players have to find a way. They believe they can. Cooper said last season was a "pretty unique" one, but isn't giving up on the thought of returning to the final. "How are we going to do it?" he said. "I have no idea." Cooper will continue to look for solutions, though this stretch will definitely test the patience of GM Steve Yzerman.
"When there's a problem, are you going to si there and kick the can and put your head down and whine about it?" Cooper said. "Or are you going to look through the solutions. I'm someone that looks for the solutions. There's one out there, just got to go find it. It's a little evasive right now, but we're going to find it."
They better — and fast.