COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Marty St. Louis, tonight's game with the Blue Jackets will tell a lot about the character of him and his Lightning teammates.
"There's always a reason that guys should play," the left wing said. "If there's nothing to play for, you have to question what you're doing playing this game."
Mind-set, focus, effort, commitment — all became legitimate topics of conversation given the events of the past few days, including Saturday's embarrassing 7-1 loss to the Sabres and Sunday's punishment skate.
Add some frank talk Monday about being realistically, though not mathematically, out of the playoffs, and you have the making of a gut-check game at Nationwide Arena, not to mention the six after that to close out the season.
"If you don't show character in these games, you won't last long in this league," left wing Todd Fedoruk said. "People look at that stuff. Who is going to show character and battle and just keep going no matter where you stand? It's all part of being a pro."
Defenseman Mattias Ohlund was more bare bones.
"This league is too hard that if you don't come out ready to play, you're going to get beaten like we did the other night, and the same thing is going to happen (tonight) and the next day after that," he said.
"If you don't come out mentally prepared to play as a team, we're going to get blown out every night."
It's hard to believe that after a Feb. 9 victory over the Canucks, the Lightning was sixth in the East and talking about perhaps breaking a two-year playoff drought.
Since then, Tampa Bay is 4-12-1, has been outscored 70-47 and outshot in 11 of 17 games, and is now 14th in the conference, eight points out of the playoffs but three points from the bottom.
Against the Sabres, the Lightning was outhustled and outworked. That is why Monday's practice was almost entirely devoted to puck battles, something Tampa Bay players lost at every turn at Buffalo.
"To me, the tactical part really doesn't come into play right now," coach Rick Tocchet said. "It's the battling. It's the coming up with loose pucks. If you don't come up with loose pucks, if you're not battling, I don't care what else you're doing out there, you won't have the puck."
Another effort like the last one and players won't have excuses.
"You just don't throw in the towel and quit," Fedoruk said. "There are certain things you have to do that are part of being a pro, keep playing hard, stay focused and at the end of the night look at ourselves in the mirror and say we worked hard."
"You've got to find a way to get yourself ready to play," St. Louis said. "Guys are playing for jobs. Guys are playing for contracts. Individually, you have to bring something."
Notes: Defenseman Kurtis Foster, out one game with a head injury, said he did not have a concussion and expected to play tonight. … Left wing Ryan Malone skated with the team for the first time since arthroscopic surgery done on his left knee March 15. It was unclear if he would play, though Tocchet sounded as if he would be cautious.