TAMPA — As if Lightning players hadn't already sensed the urgency created by its puzzling funk, coach Jon Cooper made it abundantly clear during a huddle early in Monday's practice.
"We are out of the playoffs," Cooper yelled. "Enough!"
What makes matters worse is the Lightning (7-7-2) — having lost six of its last eight to drop to eighth in the Eastern Conference — will enter a telling stretch without one of its top players. Wing Ondrej Palat is expected to miss 3-5 weeks with a lower-body injury suffered Saturday.
"It's obviously bad," said Palat, wearing a brace around his left ankle. "It (stinks) to be injured and not play and help the guys out."
With the defending conference champions already in a puzzling scoring slump (three goals in its past six losses), Palat's absence will be a huge blow. The engine of the Triplets line is a key cog in all situations, averaging nearly 4 minutes, 30 seconds of ice time combined on both special teams units, and he has two goals and five assists this season.
"He's an extremely valuable player to our team," Cooper said. "…Our depth will be tested now. Palat plays all the hard minutes, and all the important minutes. He's as honest a player as you're going to find in this league."
Heading into tonight's game against the Sabres at Amalie Arena, the Lightning called up right wing Mike Blunden. Monday, wing Jonathan Drouin took Palat's place on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Valtteri Filppula, and was back on the power play. Drouin, who returned Saturday after missing five games with a lower-body injury, said it'll take a team effort to fill Palat's shoes.
"You can't really replace a guy like (Palat), the way he plays is pretty unique," Drouin said. "He's got the skill, he goes to the net, he's hard to play against. He's in your face."
Cooper said the offensive struggles, which are wasting impressive goaltending, are most surprising. Tampa Bay has little margin for error heading into a crucial part of the schedule, with seven of the next nine games at home.
"We can sit here and say, 'Oh well, there's a lot of moral victories in what's happening here,' " Cooper said. "Unfortunately moral victories don't come with two points. There's too many games where we're leaving points on the board. We leave the game feeling we deserve a little bit of a better fate. But it's happening way too often.
"Now we have to dig a little deeper and say, 'Why? Is it just a coincidence? Is it, we're having a little bit of an outlier moment? Or is this what we are and we really have to fix this?' We're caught into that right now."
After Cooper challenged his players, not liking what he saw from early drills, the team responded with a physical, intense practice. There were a lot of spirited two-on-two and three-on-three battles. Center Brian Boyle said Cooper shouldn't have to send that message, but it was needed and understood.
"Everybody wants to figure out a way to right the ship a little bit here," Boyle said.
The Lightning will have to do it without Palat, who knew something wasn't right after Wild wing Nino Niederreiter fell on his left leg/ankle in Saturday's second period. Palat was in "bad pain," but has been a quick healer, having missed 10 days in March with a foot injury that was expected to keep him out 2-3 weeks.
"It's a new season and you can't predict what's going to happen," Palat said. "Now it's just a slump, we can't score goals. We're not winning as much as we want. We still have a good team, a lot of talent. I know we're just going to get better."
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