TAMPA — Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier knows he has to set a standard for his teammates.
From the first shift, every game until the end of the season, he said he must "lead by example.''
Same for right wing Marty St. Louis.
"I have to play hard every night,'' he said, "and play the right way.''
If not, things could get ugly.
Not that they aren't, already. Tampa Bay, which is going to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002, has lost six of seven games. And the organization's focus is as much on next season as it is the final 17 games of this year.
But don't kid yourself, it could get worse. There will be plenty of games against motivated, playoff-hungry opponents, which is why on Monday coach John Tortorella called on his core players.
"That is a major part of their leadership role right now,'' he said. "It's incumbent on the leadership, the core, to see this through. … It makes me sick to my stomach we're not talking about preparing for the playoffs. But we're not. You just don't say, 'Let's ride it out.' ''
Defensemen Dan Boyle and Paul Ranger are part of the core, too. But it is Lecavalier and St. Louis, who so many times have carried the team, and with forwards Brad Richards and Vinny Prospal traded at the deadline, that face a moment when they must do it again.
The linemates certainly must do more than they have lately.
Lecavalier entered Monday third in the league with 80 points on 32 goals and 48 assists but has four goals in his past 23 games and none in his past nine — his longest drought since a 10-game streak in February-March 2002.
St. Louis was tied for 12th with 71 points but has zero in six games and four goals in 22.
"We know we have to contribute,'' St. Louis said. "We play a lot of minutes. We need something to show for it. I don't think it's for lack of trying. Sometimes you get a bounce and the floodgates open, but right now, it's tough.''
Lecavalier said he and St. Louis have watched more video, concentrated on moving their feet on the ice and talked more during games.
"Oh, yeah, we're talking a lot more now,'' Lecavalier said. "We're more on the same page of skating and attacking. It hasn't paid off yet, but it will.''
Perhaps tonight against the Penguins at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Lecavalier has hit two posts the past two games. St. Louis had a scoring chance Saturday against the Hurricanes but broke his stick as he shot.
"That's the way it's going,'' St. Louis said, "but you have to keep fighting and working hard away from the puck. Do it the right way.''
"It's an awful position to be in,'' Tortorella said. "In some off hours after you're done and the team is gone and you think of where you're at, it wears you down. It wears on you, mentally. It wears on me mentally. I understand that part of it.
"But when it comes to the couple of hours you come in to work for practice and your preparation on game day, it should not affect that at all. … It is the absolute responsibility of the players to be as good as they can be.''
GRATTON HAS SURGERY: The team announced center Chris Gratton had successful surgery over the weekend to repair a torn labrum in his left hip. He also had an osteoplasty to smooth his hip joint.
Gratton is expected to be on crutches two weeks and could be skating in six to seven. The team said Gratton, a potential unrestricted free agent, should be able to train during the summer "without restriction.''
Filip Kuba (right knee) practiced, but Tortorella said the defenseman will miss his third straight game.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.