TAMPA — By the end of Tuesday's hour-long practice at Amalie Arena, many Lightning players were hunched over, sticks on their knees, gasping for air.
It was one of Tampa Bay's hardest skates of the season, with coach Jon Cooper noticeably more vocal than usual.
With Wednesday's off day, there's no surprise this workout was intense. But it also served as a message after a disappointing effort in Monday's 3-0 win over the last-place Maple Leafs. It easily could have been an 8-3 Toronto victory had it not been for spectacular play by goalie Ben Bishop.
"We were lucky enough Bish saved our (butt) again," wing Ondrej Palat said. "They outbattled us, outskated us. They were all over us. We were playing slow, we didn't execute. We've got to be better."
The Lightning (44-27-5) is still in relatively comfortable position, tied for first with the Panthers in the Atlantic Division and owning the tiebreaker (regulation wins). Barring a collapse, Tampa Bay should make the playoffs, though it is only six points ahead of ninth-place Detroit.
But it's still concerning that the Lightning comes up with lackluster efforts with the postseason two weeks away, no matter if its opponents, including Montreal on Thursday, are out of contention.
"There's no excuses this time of year," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "We have to bring our 'A' game every game, regardless of the opposition. We haven't got a check mark (for clinching a playoff spot). We're in a fight for first (place), a fight for the playoffs. That's where we are. We are six points out of playoff position, that's not a lot of breathing room with six games left. Nothing is set."
Tuesday began with a team meeting and video session, going over clips of Monday's win, when the Maple Leafs outshot Tampa Bay 34-18.
"It didn't look that good," captain Steven Stamkos said. "Just little things that are easily correctible and it's a choice whether we do them or not. Some games we do them and we look great. And sometimes we decide not to. We know what we have to be better at."
It has become abundantly clear that the Lightning misses top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman, who is out for the rest of the regular season and at least the early part of the playoffs with a fractured left leg, leaving a huge hole in all situations.
"It's not just Anton's 22 minutes a night, it's the importance of those minutes," Bowness said. "He plays the power play, the penalty kill and goes against the best lines every night.
"Now that responsibility has shifted to a few guys. What we don't expect is for anyone to get out of their game because of Anton's absence. We don't ask for anything more than they can give."
Palat said it's frustrating because "we've had a lot of wakeup calls this season." And with four of the final six games against non-playoff teams, the Lightning can ill-afford another let down, especially when it's trying to round out its game.
"You don't want to play this off-and-on game this close to the playoffs," wing Alex Killorn said. "You want to be building yourself up so you're playing your best hockey in the playoffs, because once the playoffs come you can't just turn off the switch."
NOTES: Bowness said, at this point, there's no long-term concerns over the lower-body injury of wing Nikita Kucherov (lower body), who has missed the last two games. … Wing Erik Condra's wife gave birth Tuesday at 3:21 a.m. to their second child, a daughter, Ellery Lou.
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