TAMPA — Go no further than four-time Stanley Cup champion Chris Kunitz for needed perspective on the Lightning’s recent slide.
Kunitz, 38, is one of the few new faces and fresh voices in the dressing room, but there’s not much he hasn’t seen in his 900-plus-game career.
When asked if there should be concern over Tampa Bay’s play the past few weeks — it had dropped four of six games before Saturday’s 5-2 win against the Sharks — Kunitz’s message was clear.
This is the first of many swings in a roller-coaster season.
"Don’t believe what everyone is telling you the first week," Kunitz said. "And don’t buy into what everyone is telling you a week before Christmas."
Translation: The Lightning is not as dominant as its 15-2-2 start indicated, the team benefiting from bounces, breaks and spectacular Andrei Vasilevskiy saves. And Tampa Bay isn’t as bad as the slump might indicate.
It is still a really good team, and it has the makings of a special one. But the Lightning just hasn’t played like it recently.
"At the beginning of the season, we were getting bounces here and there," center Tyler Johnson said. "There were some games we probably shouldn’t have won, but we did. We knew that wasn’t going to happen the whole year. It never is.
"We’ve got to get the effort for the full 60 (minutes). I think we slipped a little bit here, but we have the group, we have the guys. We know we can do it. We just have to get back to doing it."
Several players noted that things came easily for them at the beginning of the season. So when things didn’t, there was natural frustration in the room. The recent run of slow starts spoke to a team that had forgotten the process that vaulted it to the top of the standings.
A blend of will and skill drove Tampa Bay, which overwhelmed opponents, especially in a historic three-game sweep in California. It had a relentlessness, a dogged determination that had been lacking of late, especially early in games.
"We’re not looking or playing as fast as we should," Kunitz said of the slump.
Opponents have started to use Tampa Bay as a measuring stick, with the Islanders, Capitals, Penguins and Bruins playing some of the best hockey of their seasons against the Lightning.
"We’re getting everybody’s best shot," coach Jon Cooper said.
Saturday gave reasons to think the Lightning is snapping out of it. Nikita Kucherov broke out of a goal drought that was at six games. Johnson ended a career-long 15-game goalless streak. Tampa Bay was better at even strength. It had scored just four such goals in the past five games entering Saturday (Andrej Sustr, Cory Conacher, Dan Girardi and Kunitz were the unlikely sources), but had four even-strength goals against the Sharks.
"We have to address some issues," captain Steven Stamkos said. "We hope to use it as motivation. Things aren’t easy in this league. Sometimes adversity makes you a better player and team. Hopefully we learn from this."
SLAP SHOTS: Interesting that the Blue Jackets have been scouting the Lightning — and AHL Syracuse — recently. … With all the talk about defensemen Drew Doughty of the Kings and Erik Karlsson of the Senators planning to cash in as free agents in 2019, it makes Victor Hedman’s $7.875 million annual salary cap hit through 2024-25 a bargain. … Though Kucherov and Stamkos are likely All-Stars for the Jan. 28 game in Tampa, Vasilevskiy should be a slam dunk, too. … It’s crazy that Stamkos’ eight power-play goals are more than the entire Columbus team (seven). … Hedman, Stamkos and RW J.T. Brown will sign autographs in Seminole Heights from 5-6 p.m. Monday as a show of support for the community. Stamkos will be at Brew Bus Brewing (4101 N Florida Ave.), Hedman at Fodder & Shine (5910 N Florida Ave.) and Brown at Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe (5119 N Nebraska Ave.) … Great to have longtime Fox Sports Sun Lightning host Paul Kennedy back after prostate cancer treatment; broadcasts weren’t the same without him.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.