TAMPA — The boos began to trickle down from the near-empty Amalie Arena stands shortly after the Lightning's 3-0 loss Thursday to the Canadiens.
And the game's reviews weren't much better inside the Lightning dressing room, not with another lackluster effort coming with five games to go in the regular season and a playoff spot not sewn up.
"We just had too many passengers," captain Steven Stamkos said. "We're at a point of the season where that can't happen. There's no excuses here. It's look-yourself-in-the-mirror time. If you're not giving the effort, you're letting your teammates down."
The Lightning (44-28-5) had hoped to take a step forward from Monday's 3-0 win over Toronto, when it got outplayed and outshot by the worst-in-the-Eastern Conference Maple Leafs. But not much changed against the out-of-the-playoffs Canadiens. As a result, goalie Ben Bishop picked up his 11th loss when allowing two goals or fewer (Montreal's last goal was an empty-netter), and the Panthers, who beat the Devils, took over first place in the Atlantic Division.
"There are a lot of people talking the talk, not many guys walking the walk," Bishop said of his team. "We've got five games left, and we'll figure it out."
The impact of top-pairing defenseman Anton Stralman's fractured leg, suffered Friday, is looming large; the defense seems out of synch. Two coverage breakdowns led to the Canadiens' first two goals. David Desharnais outmuscled Tyler Johnson, who was minus-3, for a first-period rebound goal in front. Torrey Mitchell blew by Andrej Sustr on the left side for an early second-period goal.
"It doesn't look like we have five guys on the same page," Bishop said. "There's going to be lulls in the season, and right now definitely is probably our high point."
Despite getting wings Ryan Callahan and Nikita Kucherov back from injuries, the Lightning was shut out for the sixth time. It had some quality looks, including Ondrej Palat's penalty shot and Kucherov's point-blank power-play chance. But the most concerning part to coach Jon Cooper was three third-period shots, including a power play.
"That just can't happen," he said. "Not if you're pushing to make the playoffs and want to have any success in the playoffs."
The Lightning, five points ahead of third-place Boston in the division, should make the playoffs barring a collapse. But Stamkos said it's surprising to see this from the defending Eastern Conference champion.
"I still have 100 percent belief that this group is special and can get it done," Stamkos said. "When we don't compete, and we don't stick to the structure and the game plan, you're a very beatable team. When we (stick to the game plan), with the talent we have in this group, it's special. I believe in them. We have to believe in ourselves and play for each other here and be accountable, just coming to the rink and doing anything you can to win. You can't rely on anyone else."
It sets up a response game Saturday against the Devils.
"The report card will definitely be out Saturday night," Cooper said. "That's for sure."
First Period—1, Montreal, Desharnais 10 (Andrighetto, Emelin), 9:11. Penalties—Johnson, TB (holding), 3:59; Pateryn, Mon (hooking), 17:41.
Second Period—2, Montreal, Mitchell 10 (Pateryn, Emelin), :52. Penalties—Dietz, Mon, major (fighting), 5:21; Marchessault, TB, major (fighting), 5:21; McCarron, Mon (high-sticking), 14:28.
Third Period—3, Montreal, Danault 4 (Mitchell), 17:32 (en). Penalties—Danault, Mon (hooking), 15:25. Missed Penalty Shot—Palat, TB, 8:52 second. Shots on Goal—Montreal 12-6-6—24. Tampa Bay 14-9-3—26. Power-play opportunities—Montreal 0 of 1; Tampa Bay 0 of 3. Goalies—Montreal, Condon 20-23-6 (26 shots-26 saves). Tampa Bay, Bishop 33-20-4 (23-21).