TAMPA — When coach Jon Cooper was asked about his struggling power play the other day, he scanned the media scrum.
"I'm happy there's no (TV) cameras," he quipped.
No, Cooper didn't use any four-letter words in describing the not-so-special teams unit, which is — stunningly — 25th in the league at 16.5 percent. But center Tyler Johnson summed it up succinctly — and cleanly — after Sunday's 3-1 loss to the Kings, when the Lightning went 0-for-6 with the man advantage (on just four shots).
"Pretty atrocious," Johnson said.
Captain Steven Stamkos wondered aloud last week how many wins the Lightning (13-12-3) might have had its power play scored a goal. It's costing games, and may end up costing a playoff spot, the Lightning entering Monday four points out of third place in the Atlantic (automatic berth) and two points out of the second wild card (behind three teams).
Take Sunday as an example. The Lightning had already made it a successful trip, taking four of six points on the West Coast swing, but had a chance for its first three-game sweep in California since 1993. Down two goals five minutes into the second period Sunday, the Lightning had one minute, 10 seconds of 5-on-3 time, but couldn't muster a shot on goal. It didn't have a shot on a minute of 4-on-3 power play later in the period.
For a team desperate for scoring — held to two goals or fewer for the 16th time in 27 games Sunday — the power play can, and must, be a difference-maker.
With so much skill, how is the unit so futile?
"I am frustrated," Stamkos said. "I know we have the talent to do it. It's just execution."
Stamkos, who has two goals in his last 10 games, failed to get a shot on goal despite 6:25 of power play time. He wasn't the only one. The Lightning looked like it was trying to pass the puck into the net, turning the puck over on low percentage seam passes. There's too much hesitation. Johnson, who returned after missing three games with an undisclosed injury, believes players have been getting out of their structure.
"It's a weird thing, the power play, you look around the league, once you get hot you get that confidence and things go the right way," Johnson said. "For whatever reason, we get down early and just get frustrated in a way. We have guys that are so competitive, that when something doesn't go right, you almost try to do too much. Once you try too much, it's tough. On the power play, you already have the extra man, so you've got to use that to your advantage."
While new assistant Brad Lauer helps with the power play, like he did in Anaheim, Cooper still runs most of the show, so part of it is on his staff.
"You get scouted," Cooper said. "Coaches are good in this league, teams start to adapt and you have to adapt. We haven't been good enough at that as of late."
With recent injuries to Johnson, Jonathan Drouin and Ondrej Palat, Cooper has often switched up personnel, even putting recent AHL callup Jonathan Marchessault on the power play. The unit could use Marchessault's shoot-first mentality, he had a team-high five Sunday. The Lightning, which also hoped defenseman Nikita Nesterov could provide a spark, doesn't really have true quarterback. As Cooper said, it's not "as commanding as we once were."
"It's not like the guys aren't trying — they're trying," Cooper said. "But our execution is off a little bit. The frustration mounts, a little bit of negative energy can get in there and then they're gripping their sticks."
The Lightning lamented Sunday not being able to pick up goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who gave up two goals in 10 shots before getting pulled in his first start since Nov. 27. In the opening minute of the second, 12 seconds after Brian Boyle tied the score, Vasilevskiy allowed the go-ahead goal and was yanked, Cooper hoping for a "spark."
Ben Bishop, who had a scare Saturday after getting hit in the right eye by a stick, looked, and felt, good, stopping 17 of 18 shots to give Tampa Bay a chance. But Tampa Bay couldn't score, with no help from its power play.
"If I had the answers," Bishop said with a smile.
If only anyone did.
MINOR MOVE: Left wing Joel Vermin was reassigned to AHL Syracuse on Monday.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.