TAMPA — There aren't many easy solutions when it comes to the Lightning's stunning funk.
But coach Jon Cooper made one thing abundantly clear after Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the Sabres at Amalie Arena, its seventh loss in the past nine games.
"First of all, this season isn't last season," Cooper said. "There's a big difference between the two."
"There's no comparison," captain Steven Stamkos said.
The Lightning looked like a shell of the team that reached the Stanley Cup final just five months ago. Cooper said they'll have a different journey this time, and it's certainly going to be more difficult after Tampa Bay fell under .500.
The Lightning (7-8-2), the highest-scoring team in the league last season, was held to one goal or fewer for the eighth time, and now finds itself in uncharted territory. It is under .500 this late in a season for first time since ending the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season at 18-25-4 and out of the playoffs.
"We're not a fragile team, but when things aren't going well, you're a human being, you start to doubt yourself," Stamkos said. "You start to doubt things. We can't let that creep in. You're not going to feel that way when things are going well and the team is scoring and we're winning (like) last year. We've got to have that sense of urgency."
The Lightning didn't show nearly enough desperation in a lethargic first period Tuesday. This had the feeling of a response game, a slumping team back at home against the Sabres, which Tampa Bay beat three times this season. But the Lightning faltered, putting itself ninth in the Eastern Conference one-fifth of the way through its season.
"Teams go through funks like this, you have to stop it before it gets too big and before you dig yourself too big of a hole," Stamkos said. "We've had a lot of success and expectations were to pick up right where we left off. Sometimes you need a reality check. There's no more margin for error. That's why it's got to be fixed now. You look at (Los Angeles), Boston last year, got off to slow starts and (were) chasing. Are they both playoff teams? Yeah. Did they get in? No."
Throughout the Lightning's scoring struggles, it could at least depend on strong goaltending. But on Tuesday even that didn't help as Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed a bad, back-breaking goal five minutes into the third, a weak wrist shot from Marcus Foligno that flubbed in off Vasilevskiy's glove.
"That's for sure my bad," Vasievskiy said. "Who knows? If not for (that) goal, maybe we can tie the game, and maybe win for sure."
The Lightning got better as the game went on, veteran wing Ryan Callahan a catalyst. But it has had to play from behind too many times, the result of leading just once after the first period. Tampa Bay continued to get robbed by an opposing goaltender, including Chad Johnson's stellar stop on Nikita Kucherov in the second. "Probably the save of the last maybe five, 10 years," Stamkos said.
Cooper believes the team can still get back to the final again, though he has "no idea how."
There's a solution out there. "It's a little evasive right now. But we're going to find it," he said.
First—1, Buffalo, Eichel 6 (Franson), 5:57 (pp). Penalties—Paquette, TB (hooking), 4:05; Foligno, Buf (hooking), 8:38; Legwand, Buf (tripping), 14:35.
Second—2, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 8 (Kucherov), :52 (pp). 3, Buffalo, Franson 1 (Eichel, Ennis), 1:40. Penalties—R.O'Reilly, Buf (high-sticking), :26; Franson, Buf (hooking), 2:56; Stamkos, TB (slashing), 4:00; Gionta, Buf (hooking), 9:38; Garrison, TB (hooking), 12:42.
Third—4, Buffalo, Foligno 1 (Legwand, Deslauriers), 5:24. 5, Buffalo, Ristolainen 4 (C.Johnson), 19:24 (en). Penalties—None. Shots—Buffalo 11-8-8—27. Tampa Bay 5-13-13—31. Power plays—Buffalo 1 of 3; Tampa Bay 1 of 5. Goalies—Buffalo, C.Johnson 4-6-0 (31 shots-30 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 2-1-0 (26-23). A—19,092 (19,204). T—2:25. Referees—Steve Kozari, Kyle Rehman. Linesmen—Pierre Racicot, Jonny Murray.