BRANDON — Instead of shrill whistles and barking coaches, there was laughter.
Instead of precise passing and skating drills, there was, at times, what seemed like chaos.
Suffice it to say, the Lightning on Friday at the Ice Sports Forum looked and acted nothing like a team that has lost seven of nine games, is on a 4-12-1 streak and is starting to lose its grip on the playoff race.
That was because instead of practice, the ice was split in half for pickup games for those who wanted to play. Coach Guy Boucher wasn't even on the ice.
"It takes you back to when you were a kid and just the fun aspects of hockey," defenseman Matt Carle said. "Just go out and have some laughs where we're not harping on systems. It's more a mental break than anything."
Tampa Bay could use it after Thursday's 2-1 loss to the Jets, after which center Steven Stamkos said the Lightning, if it hopes to make the playoffs, must win as many as 17 of its final 24 games.
As if that weren't sobering enough, the team is two points from the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
"It's a deep hole," wing Marty St. Louis said. "Our playoffs have started."
The thing is, players and coaches insist the team is playing better than when it was 6-1-0.
Five-on-five play, according to St. Louis, is "a thousand times better" than the start of the season. The defense is better, too, Boucher said, noting the Jets had only nine scoring chances and only two he characterized as Grade A. The Lightning, Boucher said, had 15 scoring chances, 11 of which were Grade A.
So, why isn't the team winning? Well, goaltending has been inconsistent — Anders Lindback allowed two soft goals against Winnipeg — and the power play has disappeared, part of a larger problem of missed scoring opportunities.
The numbers are staggering. While the Lightning went 6-1-0, the power play was 12-for-35 (34.3 percent). Since then it is 7-for-61 (11.5), 3-for-28 at home, including 0-for-14 in its past three games.
"It hurts because we make one mistake and it's in the back of our net, and we miss all these opportunities in the offensive zone," Boucher said. "We had 11 (Grade) A scoring chances (against the Jets), so it's tough to come in here and start whipping our players and telling them how bad they are. That's why (Friday) we don't need to go in and practice D zone or whatever."
Which brings us back to a day of shinny hockey.
"We don't want to have a lot of long faces and dwell on it," right wing Teddy Purcell said of the Winnipeg loss. "You have to kind of reset and get ready to go again (tonight)."
"We have to move on," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "We can't be stuck in what we did in the past."
As for the future, which starts tonight at the Tampa Bay Times Forum against the Canadiens, No. 1 in the East, Lecavalier said, "I think we can be very dangerous."
"We can put a string (of wins) together," St. Louis said. "There's no doubt we can."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]