The Lightning believes it's still a playoff-caliber team.
But captain Steven Stamkos points out that so did the Kings last season, and the defending Stanley Cup champions missed the postseason, serving as a cautionary tale.
As Tampa Bay prepared to face Los Angeles tonight, it was in a dangerous spot, 12-11-3 and three points out of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference entering Saturday's games, including its late game against the Sharks. The Kings also trailed by three points on the same date last season; they ended with 95, three points short of the Western Conference's second wild card.
Their biggest lesson?
"We just left it too late," Kings star D Drew Doughty said. "In the past, we were a team that with 10 games left in the season, we'd turn it on and make the playoffs that way. We left it to the last minute last year, and all of a sudden, it was too late."
The Kings did have a different pedigree, having won two Stanley Cups in the previous three seasons, and they play in the arguably tougher West. But like Los Angeles last season, the Lightning has dug itself a hole this season. Entering Saturday, it had to overcome three teams to get the second wild card and was four points out of the third spot — an automatic playoff spot — in the Atlantic Division. Hear the Kings tell their story of last season, and it sounds awfully familiar.
"We weren't consistent enough," F Anze Kopitar said. "We got on longer losing streaks. You can't do that. You can let one, maybe two (games) get away, but … three, four, five, that really hurts you, because just to break even, you've got to put a longer winning streak together, which is not easy."
The Lightning did not lose three games in a row during the regular season last season, a big reason it set franchise records for wins (50) and points (108), and finished third in the East. Tampa Bay already has had a four-game skid this season, including dropping eight of 12 at one point. To reach 95 points by the end of the season (98 got the last spot in the East last year), the Lightning entered Saturday needing to rack up 68 points in its final 56 games.
There's no more margin for error.
"Tampa did a great job making the (Cup final) last year, but they might have flown under the radar," Doughty said. "Now that all the teams see how successful they were, they were going to be gunning for them. It's going to be a lot tougher. Everyone wants to come in and beat that team."
The Lightning is finding that out.
MAKE A DEAL? Though GM Steve Yzerman wrapped up coach Jon Cooper's contract extension last week, he's likely not done dealing. The scuttlebutt around the league is Yzerman could be in the market for a right-shot defenseman, with depth at forward to deal. … Yzerman said finishing Cooper's deal doesn't impact his negotiations with Stamkos, who is in the final year of his deal, as was Cooper. "One has nothing to do with the other," Yzerman said. Stamkos has publicly denied any rumored rift with Cooper, saying he was "happy for him" and "deserved" the multiyear deal. Re-signing with Tampa Bay would be the more telling endorsement.
SLAP SHOTS: Hindsight is 20/20, but you wonder had the Lightning knew it would be getting as much as it has out of F Jonathan Marchessault this season if it would have signed veteran F Erik Condra to a three-year deal in July. … Watching F Jonathan Drouin dazzle Wednesday against the Ducks on a line with C Vladislav Namestnikov and Nikita Kucherov reaffirms the belief that the touted wing is at his best in a top-six role. Drouin entered Saturday leading Lightning forwards with an average 2.27 points per 60 minutes, ahead of Stamkos' 2.25. But when forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat return from injuries, possibly this week, it'll be interesting to see where Drouin is slotted.