ANAHEIM, Calif. — Few expected the Lightning and Ducks to have to treat Wednesday's early December showdown like a playoff game.
After all, the Lightning was two wins away from hoisting the Stanley Cup in June. The Ducks were one win from reaching the Cup final.
But Tampa Bay (11-11-3) and Anaheim (9-11-5) entered Wednesday in almost must-win situations. They were desperate after having fallen far short of expectations this season and being out of playoff positioning.
With time running out, playing better isn't good enough.
"I don't know how many times we keep saying … there's got to be a tipping point, where we don't care how well you play if you're not getting the result," captain Steven Stamkos said. "Something has got to change. We've got to find a way. You can't just be saying the same thing over and over that "we deserved better.' Well why aren't we getting it?"
The Lightning isn't alone. Even the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks (13-8-3) are struggling. There's a reason only two teams in the salary cap era (since 2005-06) have reached back-to-back Cup finals, the 2008-09 Red Wings and Penguins.
The Cup hangover is apparently real.
"I guess the proof is in the pudding. It happens, right?" Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's been an awful long time since a Stanley Cup champion repeated (the 1997-98 Red Wings). I've got to believe there's something to it.
"But you can't allow that to enter in. History says look at the past; it has some effect on teams. But I wouldn't use it and say, 'No, it's impossible.' "
The Ducks, who took the Blackhawks to seven games in the Western Conference final last season, started this season 1-7-2. After opening 3-0-0, Tampa Bay is 8-11-3.
"It's not easy. You have to learn how to do it," Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said. "Even when you've been around a bit, it's still not easy because you've got to restart from Square 1 again, earn the respect back, get back the trust of your teammates. A lot of times you come off playing deep like that you just feel you're going to get there again. You have to reset your mind going in."
It's new territory for Lightning coach Jon Cooper. Cooper has taken his teams to championships at nearly every level, from the NAHL to AHL, as well as last season to the Cup final.
"He's a winner," Boudreau said.
Several of his current Lightning players were on the AHL title team in Norfolk in 2011-12. "Those guys have got championship blood in them," Boudreau said.
But this, Cooper admits, is different. Cooper believes his team shouldn't be judged yet after 25 games, that the "script isn't written." But Tampa Bay will find out about itself in this stretch, as will Cooper, who has been open to change.
Though Cooper's system and demeanor are the same, he has tried many line combinations to put players in better positions. Though Boudreau said that in these situations, he typically focuses on the X's O's, Cooper said he spends more time "managing the psyche" of players, who might think, "Why is last year not happening again?"
"Success just doesn't come at a snap of a finger," Cooper said. "What's the saying? It's really hard to get to the top, but it's even harder to stay there. That's the challenge we're facing right now."