Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

At season's midpoint, Lightning aware it's short on time to improve

EDMONTON — The Lightning hits the midpoint of its season tonight against the Oilers.

But considering Tampa Bay is out of a playoff position after 40 games, desperation is finally sinking in.

"We're running out of time," coach Jon Cooper said.

And it's not just in the standings, where the Lightning entered Thursday 11th in the Eastern Conference, three spots from a wild card berth, and five points behind Detroit for third place, an automatic playoff spot, in the Atlantic Division. There's also the Feb. 29 trade deadline, just over seven weeks away.

With general manager Steve Yzerman saying he typically evaluates his team a month or so before the deadline — gauging whether he has a playoff team — Tampa Bay's play the next few weeks could go a long way in determining what, if any, changes are made. And he won't decide just whether to deal wing Jonathan Drouin, whose trade request was made public Sunday.

Even captain Steven Stamkos, who has a full no-move clause, has been a subject of speculation, considering he's in the final year of his contract.

"We want to be a buyer at the deadline," Stamkos said. "Any team wants that. You don't think about that stuff until it gets closer. But we want to be in a position where management can say, 'Hey, we've got a chance this year, maybe we add a piece.' We want to be in that position."

Nobody thought the Lightning would be in this position, not after racking up 50 wins last season and reaching the Stanley Cup final. Injuries to key players have played a role, as has a puzzling lack of scoring.

But Stamkos appeared Thursday to call out his team, including himself, for one thing that should be automatic: effort.

"It starts with one simple thing, and that's just our work ethic," Stamkos said. "We have a ton of skill in this room. We have a ton of speed. We have a ton of guys that can make plays. But so do a lot of other teams that are willing to combine the two, which we were last year, which we do at times this year. We see that when we win games, it's for a reason. And we have to get back to that."

After another flat first period led to Tuesday's trip-opening 3-1 loss in Calgary, the Lightning can ill afford to drop another game tonight against the Oilers, who are in last place in the Western Conference. But Tampa Bay hasn't won at Rexall Place since March 2007, and no victories have come easy this season.

Stamkos said it became almost "second nature" last season, that with a lead late in a tight game, "we knew we were going to find a way to win." This season, it "hasn't been the case." With just seven points separating Nos. 3-11 in the conference, Stamkos notes the Lightning still can be in the playoff mix with a prolonged winning streak. Its longest such streak this season is three games twice.

"We've got to look ourselves in the mirror and realize we're at the halfway point of the season and how unacceptable it us for this particular group," Stamkos said. "You mention going to the finals last year, the expectations being raised for us this year with that experience that we gained. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. No one else is. It comes within this room, starting with me, and we all have to be better."

Time is running out.

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