NEW YORK — The beating the Lightning took Sunday night was temporarily interrupted late in the third period.
The Rangers' Michael Grabner, who scored nine goals all last season, was celebrating his hat trick, the completion of which put the Lightning down 6-0. Hats fell from the Madison Square Garden stands, a few landing on the subdued Tampa Bay bench.
"We kind of got outclassed," veteran center Brian Boyle said.
The Lightning — back to full strength with the injury returns of Ryan Callahan (hip surgery) and Nikita Kucherov (upper body) — dropped its third consecutive game, 6-1 to the Rangers.
That streak in itself is alarming, coach Jon Cooper said. Though it is early in the season, just nine games in, and teams go through these funks each season — ironically, the Lightning has lost three straight in regulation for the first time since the same dates last season (Oct. 27-31, 2015) — how this skid has happened is the most worrisome to the Lightning.
"You park the bus up to the arena, our whole team got in all the passenger seats and nobody got in the driver's seat," Cooper said. "And when that happens, it's not going to be good."
After Saturday's 3-1 loss in New Jersey, frustrated captain Steven Stamkos said it was up to the players to bring the missing urgency, to come "prepared to play." His message: Just because the Lightning (5-4-0) is coming off back-to-back deep playoff runs and has been picked by many to win the Stanley Cup this season, that doesn't mean success is a given.
"We'll figure out a way to turn it around," Boyle said. "We can't just expect it's going to happen. We need to get to work, obviously. Nine games in, that's a big-enough sample size to sound the alarms, so to speak."
The Lightning's issues are correctable, players say, but that still doesn't make it easy for fans to watch. The Rangers scored four second-period goals to pull away, feeding off numerous odd-man rushes and breakaways. Goalie Ben Bishop unfairly bore the brunt of it, including Rangers fans giving him Bronx cheers every time he touched the puck.
"That's why it was 6-1 — breakaway after breakaway after two-on-one," Cooper said. "Not even the best goalies in the world are going to bail you out of that."
The Lightning has tried to reshuffle its defense pairings the past few games, splitting up top unit Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, but Cooper said that adjustment hasn't worked. Stralman said the Lightning is coming out of its structure, everyone playing on his own page.
"No defensive awareness," Stralman said. "We just kind of let them go past us and turn pucks over, and they hurt us a lot."
The Lightning, so skilled up front, has scored a combined three goals in the past three games, the only one Sunday a late third-period power-play goal by Stamkos, his sixth goal of the season. It is taking too many penalties, Alex Killorn with three alone Sunday.
Now a road trip that started with such promise — back-to-back wins in Ottawa and Toronto — is getting away from Tampa Bay, which has an off day today before wrapping up the trip Tuesday against the Islanders in Brooklyn.
"This is a test," Cooper said. "We'll see how these guys pull themselves out of this."
First—None. Penalties—Killorn, TB, (tripping), 12:03; Vesey, NYR, (holding), 13:59; Stamkos, TB, (interference), 17:09; Zuccarello, NYR, (clipping), 18:35.
Second—1, NYR, Nash 4 (Holden), 4:45. 2, NYR, Grabner 3 (Hayes, Skjei), 6:42. 3, NYR, Vesey 5 (Nash), 7:04. 4, NYR, Miller 3 (Girardi, Hayes), 18:10. Penalties—Drouin, TB, (holding), 9:15; Killorn, TB, (roughing), 9:15; Killorn, TB, (tripping), 19:55.
Third—5, NYR, Grabner 4 (Mcdonagh, Miller), 9:02. 6, NYR, Grabner 5 (Miller, Hayes), 14:47. 7, TB, Stamkos 6 (Kucherov, Stralman), 16:36 (pp). Penalties—Holden, NYR, (holding), 9:45; Pirri, NYR, (cross checking), 15:21. Shots on Goal—TB 10-11-11—32. NYR 16-15-6—37. Power-play opportunities—TB 1 of 4; NYR 0 of 5. Goalies—TB, Bishop 3-3-0 (37 shots-31 saves). NYR, Raanta 2-0-0 (32-31).