BUFFALO, N.Y. — The way this season started, the Lightning looked unstoppable.
Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov were Nos. 1 and 2 in scoring, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy delivered Vezina Trophy-caliber performances as Tampa Bay won 15 of its first 19 games.
"Everything was coming easy," defenseman Dan Girardi said.
The Lightning (16-5-2) has lost three of four and this weekend dropped back-to-back games for the first time this season. These kinds of slumps happen to every team every season — unless you’re the 1976 Canadiens, who went 60-8-12.
There’s frustration in the Lightning dressing room, but it’s nothing close to panic.
"We knew it was going to happen. We just didn’t know when," wing Alex Killorn said. "A lot of us in here are veteran guys that have been in the league long enough to know you’re not going to keep up that pace for a whole season."
How does the Lightning snap out of this, starting Tuesday in Buffalo? Here are a few key factors:
Starting with the start
Tampa Bay fell behind by two goals in the first period against the Islanders in a Nov. 18 loss and against the Blackhawks in a comeback win Wednesday. Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins was a step in the right direction in terms of effort and 5-on-5 play, but a shorthanded goal and three 5-on-3 goals allowed dug the Lightning too deep a hole.
"We have to get to our game and play our speed and our style," wing Chris Kunitz said. "Usually when you do that, you’ll have a better outcome."
Get the top line going
It’s more than a coincidence that the Lightning’s top line has combined for only four points (all on the power play) during this four-game stretch.
Nikita Kucherov, who looks and sounds frustrated, hasn’t scored in four games — he got robbed by Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry on Saturday — and has just five shots in his past three. He has 17 goals after starting the season on a goal-a-game pace that nobody thought he would keep up as teams found ways to defend him.
"Our job is to find a way to get him the puck in areas, and he’s got to start shooting," coach Jon Cooper said. "He’s a dangerous, dangerous player, but this is a hard league to score in."
Stamkos still leads the league in points but has one assist in the past four games. It’s times like these the captain needs to lead the way.
Keep it simple
Tampa Bay is at its best when it sticks to its structure, all five players cohesively working together. The reason the Lightning has risen to the top of the league is as much will as skill, a dogged determination and relentless forecheck that overwhelmed opponents. It recently has been trying to out-skill teams a little too much, forcing plays that lead to Lightning turnovers.
"When it’s not going well, you’ve got to simplify," Girardi said. "Get (the puck) up to the forwards, chip it in and go forecheck. That’s when we’re good. We’re kind of in between and not playing as (a five-man unit), and it’s easy for (opponents) to break it out and get some chances."
There doesn’t seem to be a need — at least not yet — for massive line or lineup changes. Cooper will likely make adjustments, and Girardi said there’s the right mix of veteran leaders to right the ship.
NUTS AND BOLTS: The Lightning reassigned forward Cory Conacher to AHL Syracuse, which means wing J.T. Brown is likely ready to return after missing the past two games.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith