OTTAWA — Captain Steven Stamkos delivered the first message at the first intermission, trying to wake up a Lightning team that had dug itself a three-goal hole against the Senators.
"We’ve got a decision to make," Stamkos told the team Saturday night. "Either we’re going to get blown out or we’re going to battle back and make this a game."
The Lightning did make it a game, erasing the three-goal deficit in the second period. But Tampa Bay still lost 6-3, its first back-to-back losses since Nov. 24-25.
That sparked an even stronger — and pointed — message from coach Jon Cooper, who delivered a telling opening statement at his news conference and then walked off.
"There’s a little bit of entitlement running through our team right now," Cooper said. "There’s a group of guys that are going to have to circle the wagons in there, the leaders, and figure this out. Because we’re going down a road. This is that part of the season now where you can’t let things slide.
"You can’t win a Stanley Cup in the regular season. You have to get to the playoffs first. And I think there’s a team in there that thinks we already made the playoffs. With that attitude, we’re not going anywhere."
The Lightning still has the best record in the league, 29-9-3, and a nine-point lead in the Atlantic Division. But as much as players have said they’re not getting ahead of themselves, their play in the past two games tells a different story. And if that continues, it could lead to a slide.
Tampa Bay is very talented and deep, but it is not without flaws. Had it not been for the remarkable play of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy — a league MVP candidate — the Lightning might be sitting in a different position. He has bailed Tampa Bay out so many times and was the only reason it salvaged a point in a 2-1 shootout loss to Montreal on Thursday.
Vasilevskiy had no chance to do that Saturday, allowing six goals, one more than he had in his past six starts combined.
"We hung him out to dry," Stamkos said.
On Thursday, loose defensive play led to 10 odd-man rushes by the Canadiens, one of the worst offensive teams in the league. There was more sloppiness Saturday. Ottawa’s first goal came on a bad Jake Dotchin turnover deep in his zone. Another came when Nikita Kucherov got beat to the front of the net by Zach Smith. "Those were men’s league goals," Cooper said. "That’s just a non-commitment to play in your own end."
The Lightning responded well in the second period, scoring three unanswered goals to tie the score heading into the third. Victor Hedman scored in the opening minute. Slater Koekkoek, in front of many family and friends from nearby Winchester, Ontario, added another. "I think my whole hometown was here," he said.
Yanni Gourde had a power-play redirection to make it 3-3.
"Then we just fell off the wagon," Koekkoek said.
Ottawa scored the winner midway through the third. Vasilevskiy made a stellar first stop but couldn’t cover the puck in a mad scramble. The rebound popped out to Mark Stone, who fired the puck into an empty net. Ottawa got two more goals in the last five minutes.
Stamkos and Kucherov were kept off the score sheet, each minus-2. Typically steady defenseman Anton Stralman was minus-4. Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan were on the ice during the scrambling shift where Ottawa scored the winner.
"You can’t count on (Vasilevskiy) to make those extraordinary saves that he makes sometimes," Callahan said. "We’ve got to be better in front of him now."
Not helping is that the Lightning hasn’t had a practice in 10 days because of the quirks of the schedule. "It always helps to have practice, there’s no question," Callahan said. "But it’s part of the schedule, out of our control. We don’t need to practice to realize we can’t turn the puck over."
After opening this five-game trip with back-to-back shutouts in Columbus and Toronto, the Lightning has dropped two straight to division rivals. Tonight Tampa Bay faces a red-hot Red Wings team that has won four straight. This is where the veterans have to step up, guys such as Stamkos and Callahan, Dan Girardi and four-time Stanley Cup winner Kunitz.
Stamkos said that though self-inflicted mistakes are frustrating, the good part is they’re easily fixable.
"It’s not like we’re getting beat because of our system. It’s not us getting beat because the other team is better than us," Stamkos said. "It’s beating ourselves. That’s the most frustrating part, because you know you have the ability to stop it.
"It’s also reassuring to know you can fix it. It’s in this room. We’ve done it all year. We need to respond next game because you don’t want these things to go on."
First Period—1, Ottawa, Dzingel 12 (Stone), 4:48. 2, Ottawa, Duchene 10 (Ryan), 5:51. 3, Ottawa, Smith 3 (Karlsson, Oduya), 17:04. Penalties—Hoffman, OTT, (tripping), 2:09; Dumont, OTT, (high sticking), 11:40; Hedman, TB, (roughing), 17:47.
Second Period—4, Tampa Bay, Hedman 5, 0:26. 5, Tampa Bay, Koekkoek 4 (Killorn, Kucherov), 1:41. 6, Tampa Bay, Gourde 12 (Sergachev, Johnson), 15:57 (pp). Penalties—Sergachev, TB, (boarding), 4:12; Kucherov, TB, (cross checking), 10:32; Smith, OTT, (cross checking), 10:32; Smith, OTT, (roughing), 15:40; Callahan, TB, (holding), 16:42; Oduya, OTT, (cross checking), 19:46.
Third Period—7, Ottawa, Stone 17 (Chabot, Brassard), 10:44. 8, Ottawa, Pageau 6 (Karlsson), 14:57. 9, Ottawa, Dzingel 13 (Stone, Karlsson), 17:08. Penalties—Dotchin, TB, (cross checking), 14:54; Brassard, OTT, (roughing), 14:54; Harpur, OTT, (slashing), 17:27. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 13-20-15—48. Ottawa 12-10-11—33. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 5; Ottawa 0 of 3. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 26-6-2 (33 shots-27 saves). Ottawa, Anderson 11-12-5 (48-45).