BRANDON — The Lightning and Penguins were separated by just 30 yards Friday afternoon, practicing on separate ice sheets at the Ice Sports Forum.
But as the two teams prepare for tonight's rematch of May's thrilling seven-game Eastern Conference final, they couldn't feel further apart. Pittsburgh, the defending Stanley Cup champion, is rolling, atop the Metropolitan Division. Tampa Bay, a popular pick to hoist this season's Cup, is reeling, losers of six of seven and about as close to the Eastern Conference cellar as a playoff spot.
"Shows you what the preseason rankings mean, huh?" Tampa Bay center Brian Boyle said. "Now we're on the outside looking in. We need to be a little bit more desperate. We need to understand where we're at. You are what your record says you are. And we've got a long ways to go."
The Lightning's record (14-12-2) says it is a mediocre team. After an inexcusable 5-1 home loss to the Canucks on Thursday, Tampa Bay has just three points in the past 16 days. It's the worst stretch since the team lost 10 of the final 11 games when coach Jon Cooper took over at the end of the 2012-13 season. But that was a rebuilding (18-26-4) club. This is supposed to be a Cup contender.
"This is the toughest stretch I can ever remember being on — ever," said Boyle, a nine-year veteran.
The Lightning is a talented, veteran team. It believes it can turn things around and has a track record, having dug itself out of difficult stretches the past two seasons en route to lengthy playoff runs. But this skid feels different in a number of ways.
• This team doesn't seem to be as strong mentally.
Take Thursday, when the Lightning fell behind 1-0 four minutes in after dominating the beginning of the game. It became deflated. Boyle calls it a mental block.
"It could be that feeling, 'Something bad is going to happen,' " he said. " 'Here we go again.' We can't play like that."
The Lightning has played from behind way too often. It has trailed 2-0 in the first period eight times, an NHL high, and allowed the first two goals in 13 of 28 games. Tampa Bay is actually pretty good with the lead. It just hasn't happened enough.
"The problem is now we get behind and we almost have that feeling, 'Wow, now we can't come back,' " Cooper said. "You can't change the way you play because of the score, and as soon as you let the score dictate your play, you're going to be in trouble."
The Lightning works hard, just not always smart. There are too many careless turnovers in its own end. It looks out of synch.
"There's a difference between dumb effort and smart effort," center Tyler Johnson said. "Sometimes when you're going 100 miles per hour, really it's creating more havoc than helping. We've got to calm it down a little bit, try to be on the same page."
• The Lightning's goaltending hasn't been as good.
Tampa Bay ranked fifth in goals against last season (2.41), and goalie Ben Bishop would often bail it out. He was a Vezina Trophy finalist and could mask some warts in the team's defensive play. He hasn't been as sharp (goals against average jumping from 2.06 to 2.86). Andrei Vasilevskiy got off to a stellar start but has struggled his past two. Tampa Bay is 16th in goals against (2.71). It has lost by four or more goals four times this season, nearly matching the total in Cooper's first three regular seasons (five).
• Tampa Bay misses captain Steven Stamkos.
While the Lightning has found a way to win without Stamkos before, this four-month absence will be felt the most. Tampa Bay has been held to one regulation goal in five of the past six games and six of 11 overall since Stamkos' knee injury. The Lightning could use not only Stamkos' scoring but his leadership as the strongest voice in the dressing room. The fact that alternate captain Ryan Callahan appears to have suffered an injury setback doesn't help.
Stamkos could be back before the playoffs. The question: Will the Lightning make it?
NOTES: Defenseman Slater Koekkoek was reassigned to AHL Syracuse.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.