TAMPA — There's no question the Lightning has the talent to make another lengthy playoff run.
"I still have 100 percent belief that this group is special and can get it done," captain Steven Stamkos said.
Lately, however, there have been reason for doubts, and not just because of the crushing injury to top defenseman Anton Stralman.
It's been a troubling trend, even to Stamkos, to see the defending Eastern Conference champion coasting at a time it should be clicking. There are few worse things a player can be called than a "passenger," and Stamkos' "we had too many passengers" comment after Thursday's 3-0 loss to the Canadiens was a sign that concern has crept into the dressing room.
No team is going to be perfect over 82 games. There will be natural ebbs and flows. But the Lightning has had many times this season when a lack of focus or compete level has cost it and players lamented after a game that their effort was "not good enough."
"It's frustrating," wing Ondrej Palat said. "We've had a lot of wakeup calls this season.
There's no switch Tampa Bay can flip when the playoffs begin, so if the inconsistency continues, it could have an early exit. Sure, the Lightning will likely clinch a playoff spot, and it may have a similar seeding to last season's.
But this year has had a completely different feel. And Tampa Bay could very well be on the outside looking in for the playoffs right now had it not been for the spectacular play of goalie Ben Bishop, who should be a Vezina Trophy favorite and garner some Hart Trophy consideration.
Maybe the Lightning is a victim of its heightened expectations.
"I think that's been the entire year. (It has) just been magnified because of the success we had last year," center Tyler Johnson said. "But that comes with the territory if you want to be the top dog."
But that quiet confidence and swagger that carried the Lightning last year, when it didn't lose more than two games in a row in the regular season, seems fleeting. Stamkos even called his team fragile after a March 17 collapse in Dallas.
"There were other points (this) year where we just mailed it in, we weren't (angry) enough after those losses," veteran forward Brian Boyle said. "That was a little concerning."
The coaching staff hasn't always found the right buttons to push. The Lightning showed little push late in Thursday's to Montreal even after a hard, message-sending practice Tuesday. Is the message getting through?
Being mad is one thing. It's time, as Bishop said after the Montreal game, for the Lightning to walk the walk.
"The one thing we can control is our effort level," defenseman Jason Garrison said. "It's got to be there every single night, and sometimes it has dipped. But this isn't the time."
SLAP SHOTS: Wing Jonathan Drouin has been dynamic since returning to AHL Syracuse in mid March, racking up eight goals in his first nine games (on 38 shots). Would think a Drouin callup could provide a spark to what's been a sometimes flat Lightning lineup in recent games. Sounds like he's ready. … Was curious, at the least, to see coach Jon Cooper move Stamkos back to wing Monday against Toronto, albeit for only part of the game. Stamkos had been hot, with seven goals in seven games, thriving at his natural, and preferred, center position. Flipping Stamkos back and forth is partly what drives the national narrative, right or wrong, that Stamkos and Cooper don't always see eye to eye. … Will be interesting to see the fan response to former Lightning captain Marty St. Louis as he returns to Tampa as an ambassador for this week's Frozen Four at Amalie Arena. Could it be a test run to see how much St. Louis has been forgiven for forcing a trade two years ago?