RALEIGH, N.C. — The fact the Lightning is in first place in the Southeast Division more than halfway through the season is an impressive feat, especially considering the road it has traveled and the injuries it has endured.
But to the players, their expectations have risen. And that's what makes the Lightning's recent stretch, having lost three of its past four, including its first back-to-back regulation losses since Nov. 11-14, so frustrating.
"We know what we're capable of, and we're not getting that right now," assistant captain Marty St. Louis said. "So am I disappointed? Absolutely, and we all are. But this is done. And we've got to move forward and think about the next one and try to get back on track."
Though the Lightning's next game is against struggling Columbus on Tuesday in Tampa, it offers little solace. The Blue Jackets took the Red Wings to overtime on back-to-back nights, winning in a shootout then losing in overtime. And Tampa Bay has struggled against teams near the bottom of the standings, including two losses in the past week to the Devils, who might be improved under coach Jacques Lemaire but still have the league's worst record.
"This is our toughest stretch of the year, as far as having to deal with two games against Jersey that killed us," coach Guy Boucher said. "Two games against Jersey killed our momentum and killed our confidence and that high level of commitment that we had. We've got to turn it around."
A key culprit has been inconsistency, St. Louis said. The Lightning (26-15-5) might have great effort and execution on some nights, like in its two shutouts over the Capitals in the past few weeks, but then its attention to detail and smarts will falter the next night.
"The reality is, where we are in the standings, the teams get geared up to play us," St. Louis said. "When I first came to Tampa, we weren't a playoff team, and you get a chance to play a good team and it was a chance to try to gauge yourself, prove to the organization that you were on the right track. Right now we're a team that teams are geared up to play. We can't have our ups and downs in our play."
That goes for the whole team. Even veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson, who was spectacular in two shutouts over Washington, has given up nine goals in his past two starts. Though in Saturday's loss in Carolina, he wasn't helped by the Lightning special teams, which gave up a season-high four power-play goals (one on an empty-netter) and its ninth shorthanded goal.
"As a team, we want more," St. Louis said. "And right now, we're faced with a little adversity. And we deserve the results we're getting right now. Nobody is going to feel sorry for you. You can't feel sorry for yourself.
"It's not a forgiving league. Every game is a tough game. We've just got to straighten it out, get it back on track. It's been there at times here and there but not enough to get on a streak."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.