TAMPA — For those late to the party, let's get something straight: This Lightning is a shell of the team that reached the Stanley Cup final last season.
"Nothing is the same this year," defenseman Anton Stralman said.
"We can't look back and say, 'Our record was great last year,' " captain Steven Stamkos said. "It means nothing."
That 2014-15 Lightning team earned everything it got in racking up a franchise-record 50 wins and winning the Eastern Conference. This one? It's muddling along, having lost more games than it has won (18-16-4) and staring at the real possibility of missing the playoffs.
What's most alarming is Tampa Bay isn't showing the type of desperation and consistent 60-minute effort it needs, and it's giving little reason to believe things will change. Losing back-to-back home games to a pair of reeling rivals, the Canadiens and the Rangers, on Monday and Wednesday were telling indictments of its lack of urgency.
General manager Steve Yzerman said the Lightning's playoffs have already started. Someone forgot to tell the players.
"If it is, we haven't shown it," Stamkos said. "We have to find a way."
The Lightning took Thursday off, with Stralman saying every player needs to "look themselves in the mirror." Barring a blockbuster, shakeup trade, which is unexpected, the answers will have to come from the current roster. Stamkos said his team needs to be more "(ticked) off." Center Brian Boyle said it needs to feel more fear.
"We're too good to be where we are," Boyle said.
The Lightning has been plagued by slow starts, not only on Monday and Wednesday — it had just two shots in the first 12 minutes Wednesday — but often this season. Instead of grabbing control of a game, it's playing on its heels. It has held a lead after the first period just seven times in the first 38 games.
Is that coaching? Is that execution? Maybe a little bit of both.
"You've just got to sit down and think about our preparation and how we're preparing for games," coach Jon Cooper said. "Believe me, we're not walking into the game (saying) 'You know what. The first eight minutes, let's just not really try.' "
There's no question injuries have played a role. Significant players have missed huge chunks of time. All-Star center Tyler Johnson has sat out 13 games and has just four goals. Left wing Ondrej Palat, often the straw that stirs the Lightning's drink, has missed 20 games and is still sidelined with a left ankle injury. Left wing Jonathan Drouin has played in just 19 games. But every team deals with injuries. Those can't be controlled.
The bigger issues include the Lightning's home record, 9-8-2; it has one more home loss than it had all last season (32-8-1). "Atrocious," Stamkos said.
There's also Tampa Bay's record in one-goal games, 10-7-4, and when allowing two goals or fewer, 13-7-1. The Lightning was 35-3-5 when giving up two goals or fewer last season. If the Lightning can't win more than three in a row this season with goalie Ben Bishop having a career year, where are the signs it can go on a lengthy winning streak? The power play, which has shown some life lately, hasn't helped enough.
"It's a hard league," Yzerman said. "Things have to go well. You have to play well. You have to be sharp. And all your weaknesses or deficiencies will be exposed along the way, whether it's special teams, injury. … And if you're fortunate enough to get in the playoffs, those weaknesses are even more magnified."
The Lightning entered Thursday three points behind the Devils for the second wild-card playoff spot in the East. Time is running out, and Yzerman likely will be evaluating his team as the Feb. 29 trade deadline nears.
"I believe in our team," Yzerman said. "We're not that far out of it. I think we have a good team, a good group of guys. If we stay healthy and get it going, it'll be an exciting second half."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.