TAMPA — The look on their faces said it all.
After Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad's seemingly harmless wrist shot from the point Monday night deflected in off Victor Hedman's skate, sealing another devastating 1-0 defeat, Lightning players skated off stunned, as if to say, "Are you kidding?"
"Guys are crushed, and this is Game 20," coach Jon Cooper said. "Guys are ticked off, because they're working hard, doing what we ask."
The Lightning was deflated, having played arguably its most complete game of the season, outshooting the Panthers 39-19 but again coming up empty.
But despite having lost nine of its past 12, the defending Eastern Conference champions don't seem defeated.
That's the most important thing for Tampa Bay (8-9-3) if it wants to come out of this frustrating stretch. Stick with the process, believe it will eventually turn.
Don't "accept losing," as Brian Boyle said, or give into the thought of, "This might not be our year."
Captain Steven Stamkos said the Lightning has no alternative but staying the course, knowing it'll eventually be rewarded for efforts like Monday's.
"If we keep playing like this, good things are going to happen," Hedman said.
"More games we play like that," Stamkos said, "the more times we're going to win than lose."
The Lightning has lost these types of games at an alarming rate, with three 1-0 defeats. Take away empty-net goals by the Red Wings, Blues and Bruins and eight of Tampa Bay's 12 losses (nine in regulation) would be either 1-0 or 2-1.
For a Lightning team that led the league in goals last season (3.16 per game), its stunning slump (2.30, ranked 23rd of 30 in the NHL going into Tuesday's games) is the main reason it is leaving too many points on the table. Tampa Bay has been held to two or fewer goals in half of its games.
"As frustrated as we are as a staff, players are just as frustrated," Cooper said. "Because you can see that they're battling their tails off, and a puck that's probably gone in for them in the past is not going in for them right now."
Talk to opposing teams, and they say the same thing: The Lightning is too talented for this to continue. But Tampa Bay isn't going to be given anything. Opponents are doing a great job of limiting the Lightning's rushes, taking away time and space in the neutral zone. Tampa Bay needs to counter by scoring more dirty goals, putting in rebounds or deflections.
"We've been harping on us getting to the net, getting traffic," Stamkos said. "We can never have enough."
One quarter through the season, the Lightning is tied for third in the Atlantic Division, though with two games in hand over the Panthers and Red Wings. Tampa Bay got a much-needed two-day break before hosting the red-hot Rangers on Thursday, giving its injured forwards (Tyler Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Cedric Paquette) more time to heal.
Hedman said while this season hasn't gone as expected — far from it — there's no reason to panic.
"One thing I know about this team," Hedman said. "We bounce back and rise to the occasion."
The Lightning needs to, soon.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.