CALGARY — The importance of getting off to a strong start Tuesday was significantly stressed in the Lightning dressing room.
"It was thoroughly talked about," coach Jon Cooper said.
"All we talk about is having a good start," captain Steven Stamkos said.
But once again the Lightning failed to walk the walk, inexplicably and inexcusably letting another flat first period lead to a 3-1 loss to the Flames at the Saddledome.
Stamkos summed up this maddeningly disappointing Lightning season perfectly:
"We can't just keep saying the right things. We've got to do it. It starts with me. I've got to be better."
The only thing consistent about Tampa Bay has been its inconsistencies. Four days after arguably its best performance of the season in a Saturday win against the Wild, the Lightning looked lethargic, and sometimes soft, early in Tuesday's game, when with a win it could have pulled into a tie for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Lightning wasn't skating well. Its passing was awful. Its defensive zone coverage was spotty, a bad backcheck by Cedric Paquette leading to a Flames 3-on-2 and their first goal. You could count on one hand the number of hard checks Tampa Bay offered, the team, not typically physical, hurt when Ryan Callahan left in the second with a lower-body injury.
The Lightning has led after the first period just seven times in the first 40 games. Seven. Defenseman Anton Stralman said it has been outplayed in the first period in six of its past seven games.
That's why the Lightning hasn't been able to go on a run. Its longest winning streak this season is three games (twice). The Panthers, in first place in the Atlantic Division, have won 10 straight. The Canadiens won nine to open the season. The Bruins have had four- and five-game streaks, the Senators a stretch with six wins in eight games.
It's awfully tough to make the type of run needed to snatch a playoff spot when a team takes two steps forward then one step back. Can you imagine where this team would be if goalie Ben Bishop, named to his first All-Star Game on Wednesday (along with Stamkos), had not been playing the best hockey of his career?
"Something has to change," Stralman said. "We have the talent. We are just not going out and executing and working hard enough. It has to be a mind-set.
"We are not going to win games playing just 40 minutes. It's about 60 minutes, and I've been talking about 60-minute games the whole year. Some games it's there, most games it's not, and that's not going to cut it. Teams are too good, and we are not that good of a team that can just play for 40 and just roll with it. Obviously the record shows that."
So what needs to change? General manager Steve Yzerman has said he doesn't believe in making a trade simply to shake up things, but after the same old song for 40 games, could new blood inject some life? Cooper bears some responsibility, too, and needs to get more out of a team that is way too talented to underachieve.
Cooper was asked why, as players continue to say the right things, the effort hasn't improved.
"If I had the answer," Cooper said, "we'd have better starts every night."
Stamkos said the answers are with the players; this is, after all, much the same team that racked up 50 wins last season and reached the Stanley Cup final.
It just sure doesn't look like it.
"It's just execution," Stamkos said. "When we're moving our feet and we're executing, we're a great team. We show it. We dominate teams, like how (Calgary) dominated us. When we play to our strengths, we're a good team in this league. When we don't — when we stand around, don't execute, can't make a pass — you're a below-average team, and it shows.
"As of (Tuesday), I don't think (the Flames) were in the playoffs, either. They came out with some desperation, and we didn't. We've got to find a way to do that."
For the Lightning, it's time for a little less talk and a lot more action.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.