BUFFALO, N.Y. — It was almost an automatic win.
Mark it down. Guaranteed.
When the Lightning gave up two goals or fewer last season, it went 35-3-3. "You should be winning," coach Jon Cooper said.
Problem is, the Lightning isn't when it's in that situation this season. It's losing those games at an "alarming rate," Cooper said. It is 3-3-1 when giving up two goals or fewer, including Tuesday's 2-1 defeat in Detroit.
In losing those games, Tampa Bay is wasting chances to earn points in winnable games, failing to take advantage of strong goaltending and defensive play. It's still early in the season, and the Lightning — even after dropping five of its past six games — entered Wednesday tied for second in the Atlantic Division. But it is nine points behind first-place Montreal and it sat seventh in the Eastern Conference.
Keep this up and Tampa Bay could be in trouble.
"It's unfortunate," Cooper said. "We're letting points go off the board, which you can't do because it's so hard to catch up later in the year."
Tampa Bay, the defending Eastern Conference champion, always said this season would be different. It would be tougher.
"It's '15-16, not '14-15," Cooper said.
And the Lightning is in the midst of a puzzling scoring slump, tallying just three combined goals in its past five losses. A year after leading the league in scoring, Tampa Bay entered Wednesday ranked 19th (average 2.43 goals per game). The touted Triplets line — Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov creating the most productive line in the league last season — has been split up.
This is uncharted territory for everyone, from Cooper to the players, and the pressure is on them to rise to the challenge.
"Our journey this year, wherever it takes us, is going to be different than it was last year," Cooper said. "We've got a couple speed bumps here we didn't really deal with too much last year. We've got to deal with it this year. We've got to find a way."
Cooper unexpectedly gave his team another day off Wednesday, maybe sensing the players needed a mental break. The Lightning has been frustrated and exasperated. It's not like Tampa Bay hasn't played well. Players are "doing everything we've asked," Cooper said. But from hitting posts (four in Tuesday's loss) to missing nets, close hasn't been good enough.
"We need the net to be (6 feet 2) by 4-2," Cooper quipped, asking for 2 more inches of width and height.
Cooper said there's too much talent in the Lightning dressing room for the scoring slump to continue. Maybe he's right. But a change won't be automatic.
"We can't just expect things to happen," wing Alex Killorn said. "We've got to do it ourselves. Look at the end (of Tuesday's) game. We were just throwing pucks at the net just hoping they'd go in, and that's when we were getting our best chances. We've got to get back to that."
Said Kucherov: "Got to get to those dirty areas, score garbage goals."
Goalie Ben Bishop would appreciate it. He has lost four consecutive starts for the first time since being acquired by the Lightning in an April 2013 trade. His margin for error has been slim to none, having allowed two goals or fewer in each of those defeats.
"It's frustrating to lose this many in a row for myself," said Bishop, who has started 12 of the Lightning's 14 games. "But I know it's a long season and there's going to be games where it's going to be the opposite, where I'm giving up four and we're winning 5-4. It's one of those things you've got to stick with it, got to look at the big picture.
"As much as you might not like losing, you're actually not playing as bad as you think."
It would help if Tampa Bay didn't have to chase every game. Opponents have scored first in nine of the 14 games, with the Lightning yet to hold a lead after the first period. Tampa Bay was 25-3-2 when leading after the first period last season.
"It seems like a lot of the games have been 2-1 games where it comes to the end and we're pulling our goalie," Killorn said. "We're used to it being the opposite way."
The good news for Tampa Bay is that of the three games it has won when allowing two goals or fewer, two have come against the Sabres, its opponent tonight at the First Niagara Center.
"You can't look at (the Lightning) as a team going through a drought right now," Sabres star rookie Jack Eichel said. "Because at any point, they can explode."
The Lightning hopes that happens soon.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.