PITTSBURGH — General manager Steve Yzerman stood in his press box suite for most of the third period Sunday.
He glared down at the Lightning's 6-2 loss to the Penguins, staying helplessly through the final seconds. Yzerman couldn't have been happy with what he saw, a fourth straight defeat that dropped Tampa Bay (19-19-4) to .500, closer to the Eastern Conference basement than the second wild-card playoff spot.
It's hard to believe the Lightning was at this arena eight months ago for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. To be fair, it isn't the same team. Five players in Sunday's lineup have spent most of this season with AHL Syracuse, called up because of injuries.
Whether Yzerman can do anything to shake up this underachieving, banged-up team remains to be seen. The trade market, Yzerman says, is "very quiet." But it should be a long, and potentially interesting, three days before the Lightning hosts Buffalo on Thursday at Amalie Arena.
Players still believe the answers lie with the current team and coaching staff.
"We've done it before," said wing Jonathan Drouin, who scored his 12th goal. "We have the team to do it. It's definitely time to go."
Time to go passed long ago. But the Lightning didn't play like a team that has quit, showing more urgency and fight than it did Saturday in Philadelphia in the first of back-to-back games. It took a 1-0 lead on the Penguins, who were coming off a bye week, and trailed by just one after 40 minutes.
"We played hard the whole game," wing Ondrej Palat said. "Way better than (in) Philly."
But the Lightning didn't play smartly. Between turnovers and bad coverage in its zone, Tampa Bay ensured another long day for goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
"Every mistake went in," defenseman Anton Stralman said.
Even so, coach Jon Cooper didn't see a deflated bench.
"No matter what, there was still positive chatter on the bench, guys trying to pick each other up," Cooper said. "Guys were getting (ticked) off as well, and as well they should. But you've got to keep plugging away to get out of this."
Players say they're still responding to Cooper's message.
"Everybody's on the same page," Drouin said.
Said Palat: "It's up to us players to execute."
The Lightning is six points out of the second wild-card spot and four behind Ottawa for third in the Atlantic Division, with the Senators having three games in hand. Injuries could have caught up with the Lightning, which is 9-13-3 without captain Steven Stamkos (knee surgery), and it was without veterans Ryan Callahan, Braydon Coburn, Brian Boyle, Ben Bishop and J.T. Brown on Sunday.
Whatever the reasons, Tampa Bay is in a frustrating free fall, and it doesn't appear close to snapping out of it. Players are left searching for answers.
"It's obviously tough being in a stretch like this," Stralman said. "But what are you going to do? You can't give up. There's half of a season left to play. We're still not out."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—None. Penalties—Malkin, PIT, (hooking), 7:57; Killorn, TB, (hooking), 8:11; Paquette, TB, (hooking), 15:09.
Second Period—1, Tampa Bay, Drouin 12 (Hedman, Filppula), 2:19. 2, Pittsburgh, Sheary 10 (Crosby, Rust), 6:44. 3, Pittsburgh, Fehr 5 (Cullen), 11:14. Penalties—Kunitz, PIT, (slashing), 9:01; Kunitz, PIT, (slashing), 15:25.
Third Period—4, Pittsburgh, Kunitz 4 (Bonino, Maatta), 2:33. 5, Pittsburgh, Wilson 5, 3:28. 6, Tampa Bay, Namestnikov 5 (Stralman, Drouin), 5:40 (pp). 7, Pittsburgh, Kessel 13 (Crosby, Sheary), 7:50. 8, Pittsburgh, Letang 3 (Cullen, Schultz), 17:20 (pp). Penalties—Maatta, PIT, (high sticking), 3:55; Hedman, TB, (tripping), 15:21. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 10-12-8—30. Pittsburgh 15-14-11—40. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 4; Pittsburgh 1 of 3. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 10-9-2 (40 shots-34 saves). Pittsburgh, Fleury 13-5-4 (30-28).