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Tampa Bay Lightning finds itself sliding down the standings

BRANDON — In the old days, injuries were not a burden. The Lightning would plug someone new into the lineup and keep right on winning.

Back then, the opponent rarely mattered. The Lightning would come ready to play, and the division was Tampa Bay's to rule.

Yes, once upon a time, the world was a simpler and kinder place.

But no sense getting nostalgic about a week ago.

In less than seven days' time, the Lightning has gone from a five-point lead in the Southeast Division to trailing for the first time since Dec. 30. It has fallen from the conference's No. 2 seed to its No. 5. Lightning players have gone from wondering about how high they might go to fretting about where they might eventually land.

Washington officially took over the division lead Sunday evening with a 3-2 victory at Florida. And now the Capitals come to the St. Pete Times Forum this evening, and Lightning players commence chasing the team that had spent two months chasing them.

"We're not talking about the Caps right now," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said when asked about the Southeast Division race, "we're talking about everybody."

It has been that kind of stretch for the Lightning. And, truthfully, it has lasted more than just the past week.

Go back to mid February, and Tampa Bay has lost six of its past nine games. The Lightning has lost ground on teams above and below. Of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning has the worst record in that span.

In some ways, it is to be expected. Ryan Malone and Steve Downie have been out of the lineup. Vinny Lecavalier and Marc-Andre Bergeron have been hurting. And nine of the past 10 games have been against teams in the playoff hunt.

Still, dropping three places in the conference standings in less than a week is more of a playoff plunge than a playoff push.

"We can't start panicking now because we lost three in a row," Lecavalier said. "You've got to realize where you're at. You have to be realistic. It's a tight race. You have to expect it to get harder. You have to look at the teams below us chasing us."

This is true, to a large degree. Philadelphia has lost four in a row. Detroit has lost three in a row. Teams on top have less urgency than teams in danger of missing the postseason.

Which, in a way, makes the past week even more frustrating. Not only did the Lightning allow Washington back into the picture, it also missed a chance to run down the Flyers.

"If we would have just had those games against Jersey and Boston, get those two points there, we'd be close to being first in our conference," Boucher said. "But we're not, so I have to stop thinking about that because it doesn't help me. It just makes me more (ticked) off. It doesn't help me dealing with the players. It just makes me more emotional, and then I don't say the right things and I don't act the right way.

"Some guys have tried to play lately to be first in the league. Look where that got us."

For that reason, you will not hear Boucher make a big deal about the division lead tonight. He's not denying this game is critical. And the players undoubtedly will show more desperation than they did in the first period against Montreal in Saturday's 4-2 loss.

But the emphasis for the Lightning has to be on the process and not the intangibles. It's when they look too far ahead or behind that Lightning players get in trouble.

For this is not a team that can afford to drive on cruise control. It's just not that good.

Tampa Bay has won more games in overtime and shootouts than any team in the league. And the Lightning is a ridiculous 21-12 in games decided by one goal.

In other words, the margin between success and failure in Tampa Bay is probably as slim as anywhere in the NHL.

"We're not a powerhouse. We have to fight for every inch," Boucher said. "And the moment we don't fight for that inch, we're (in trouble)."

There is more at stake tonight than simply the prestige of the division lead. Not winning the Southeast might also mean falling behind Pittsburgh in conference seeding, and that means losing home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

A top-three seed does not automatically translate to postseason success — the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference has lost in the first round four consecutive times — but the Lightning has been far better at home (21-8-4) than on the road (16-13-3).

As they finished a practice Sunday at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, players returned to the locker room to see the Flyers being crushed by the Rangers on TV.

The significance of playing with more desperation did not go unnoticed.

"Seventeen games, that's not a lot," Lecavalier said. "It's basically a sprint to the end of the season, and we definitely want that division."

Tampa Bay Lightning finds itself sliding down the standings 03/06/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 11:43pm]
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