TAMPA — It wasn't exactly a postmortem at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Saturday night.
But Lightning players, after their fifth loss in six games, 3-1 to the Blues, acknowledged for the first time there likely will not be a fairy tale ending to their season.
In fact, after the Hurricanes' win over the Jets on Sunday night, Tampa Bay (32-32-7) is last in the Southeast Division, and it is two points from the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
"It's tough. It's mentally tough," coach Guy Boucher said.
What makes the free fall tougher to take is that just two weeks ago the team was in the thick of the playoff race. But losing No. 1 goaltender Mathieu Garon to a torn groin was the start of the downward spiral, and it continued a plague of injuries that has worn out the team by forcing some players to play more minutes and take more responsibilities than they can comfortably handle.
That ramped up again Saturday with the loss of wing Ryan Shannon to an upper-body injury. If he does not play tonight against the Sabres, Tampa Bay will be without seven regulars, only a small improvement over a season-high nine at one point in January.
Add the loss of defensemen Pavel Kubina and Matt Gilroy and right wing Steve Downie through trades and general manager Steve Yzerman is loathe to blame anyone for a disappointing season.
"I've got to give our players and coaching staff credit for their resiliency to battle all year long with the injuries and shortcomings and in terms of trades," Yzerman said. "They just kept plugging away and competed hard."
Said Boucher: "We're at the top of what we can give. Our guys are competitors, and they're fighters, and right now they're showing all the fight they can. The players are giving everything they've got."
The real test will come in the final 11 games as the players prepare for the likelihood of golf in April instead of the playoffs.
"Packing the tent wouldn't be anything like this group," defenseman Brendan Mikkelson said. "We're always going to fight to the end. We've got to take it a day at a time and a game at a time. If you get extended too far along the negatives and things like that, things can snowball even more."
NOTES: An announcement is expected today concerning the Lightning's signing of goalie Sebastien Caron. ... Though he said he wasn't obsessing over it, Mikkelson described his first NHL goal in his 116th game Saturday against the Blues as "a relief."