GLENDALE, Ariz. — The words were equally surprising and disturbing for Lightning fans to hear after Thursday night's loss in Dallas.
"We played like a fragile team that's scared to lose," captain Steven Stamkos said.
Considering all the winning Tampa Bay has done the past few years, including its run to the Stanley Cup final in June, it has been puzzling to see such a seasoned group play with such fear, as Stamkos called it.
But the key now for the reeling Lightning, which has lost five of its past six games, is to find a way to snap out of it — and fast. Its hold on a playoff spot is growing more tenuous by the day, making tonight's game against the Coyotes almost a must-win. Tampa Bay, in third place in the Atlantic Division, is just five points ahead of the surging Flyers, who are in the ninth spot in the Eastern Conference, one point out of the second wild card spot, and have two games in hand. The Red Wings, four points behind for third in the division and in the second wild card spot, arrive in Tampa on Tuesday.
"Eleven games left (in the regular season)," coach Jon Cooper said. "Got to start winning or we won't play much longer."
Cooper and his staff cancelled the team's scheduled practice Friday at Gila River Arena, no doubt giving the players a much-needed mental break. Just as a team can feel invincible during a long winning streak, it can quickly go the other way.
"Confidence is a big thing," Stamkos said. "You can see that when you're winning a lot of games consecutively, closing (them) out; you're finding ways to do that. When it's the opposite, the snowball goes the other way. It gets bigger and bigger. But good teams find a way not to let that grow. We'll have to address that."
Aside from a few bad turnovers that led to two Stars goals in the 4-3 loss, the Lightning believed it played pretty well in the first two periods. It took a 3-2 lead on the road against a very good Stars team that leads the Western Conference. But then, Cooper said, the Lightning "completely changed" the way its played, getting stuck on its heels.
"It's almost like we played the game not to lose instead of playing the game to win," Cooper said.
So how does the Lightning change that?
"It's a mind-set," Stamkos said. "Sometimes it's an unconscious mind-set, where you're just hoping you get the win instead of making sure you get the win. When you haven't won a couple in a row, it's adjusting that mind-set. It's working even harder than we did in the first two periods and competing even harder and executing even more to make sure we close the game out."
General manager Steve Yzerman, an iconic former Red Wings captain, has been through it before. Yzerman said a team can "never relax," knowing things "change in a hurry." He says the Lightning has been in "playoff mode" for the past six to eight weeks, having to pull itself back into a playoff position after a slow start to the season.
"You're sky high when you're winning; you're down in the dumps when you lose," Yzerman said. "That's the playoff atmosphere. I'm confident in our group, our guys. It's not going exactly as we wanted it, but we'll continue to figure out ways to get better and win as many games as we can."
Yzerman said getting through these moments is mostly mental.
"The more you're in the situation, you get more comfortable with it and learn how to deal with it better," Yzerman said. "We just got to stick with it.
"It could be being determined and mentally strong and keep grinding it out. And you win these games and you get more comfortable and keep going. That kind of mind-set, or fear of being in the situation, turns to that you enjoy it and you're comfortable with it and look forward to being in it, and know you're going to persevere and get through it."