DALLAS — Captain Steven Stamkos said the Lightning wants to be peaking as it hits the playoffs.
Instead, the defending Eastern Conference champion has been coasting.
The Lightning's puzzling inconsistency continued in Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay's fourth defeat in five games since winning a franchise-record nine in a row.
No team plays perfectly every night in an 82-game schedule that has its share of ebbs and flows. But considering the time of year — four weeks away from the playoffs — and the stakes, ranging from making the postseason to winning the division, inconsistency is a concerning trend for Tampa Bay.
"I think it surprises everybody," veteran defenseman Anton Stralman said. "We definitely haven't accepted the way we're performing. Now you're in that stretch of the year where consistency is going to get you somewhere and inconsistency is not. So we better shake it up here and find a way and make sure every night we come out and be ready to put on our boots and work."
The Lightning admittedly came out flat Tuesday in a loss to the last-in-the-league Maple Leafs, who featured seven players who have spent most of the season in the AHL. But after watching the game tape, coaches and players believed they didn't play as poorly as they originally thought. They didn't give up a ton of chances defensively and had several grade-A chances they either passed up or missed.
"Isolated issues cost us that game," coach Jon Cooper said. "It wasn't a 60-minute meltdown."
The Lightning must be much better tonight against Stars, who entered Wednesday leading the Western Conference but who are coming off an embarrassing loss of their own, 5-2 at home to the Kings on Tuesday. Despite being third in the Atlantic Division, Tampa Bay entered Wednesday just seven points ahead of ninth-place Philadelphia, which was one point out of the second wild card spot in the East and had two games in hand on the Lightning before playing Chicago late Wednesday.
"It's been the whole year, just up and down," Lightning wing Ondrej Palat said. "We play a couple games really good, then we have one, two games that we just don't compete hard enough. That's what happened (Tuesday)."
Why is that? Did the Lightning get too comfortable after its nine-game winning streak put it back in first place in the division? Is the playoff-seasoned team — which came within two wins away of hoisting the Stanley Cup in June — looking too far ahead?
"We've got to find that answer probably," Palat said. "It's a question we don't have an answer to. We say after every bad game, 'Next game we need to work harder.' "
Said captain Steven Stamkos: "You want to go in and win every night. The intention is not to go out there and come out flat or play crappy. You want to go out and play hard. You just want to be consistent with the game plan and details."
That's what Cooper said the coaching staff tries to stress during stretches like this, reinforcing the habits and principles of how the team is supposed to play. Those things tend to slip when a team goes through a dry spell in scoring. The Lightning has just four even-strength goals in the past four games and is in a 0-for-19 power-play drought.
"Because we play so many games in a season, it's hard to completely stay consistent the whole time," Cooper said. "So it's our job to reinforce the standards from the last couple years, and eventually they'll come out of it, because it's happened time and time again."
If — or when — the Lightning comes out of it will determine how close it'll come to the Cup.