TAMPA — The Lightning crossed an invisible line, perhaps of no return, with Tuesday's jarring loss to the Thrashers.
Hard to argue you still have a chance at a playoff spot when you can't beat the worst team in your division.
Neither players nor coaches said they are in wait-till-next-year mode. But by any objective measure, getting to the postseason is now so remote as to be nearly impossible.
As right wing Marty St. Louis said Wednesday, "It is a realistic thought that, you know, if we don't win most of our games, we're not going to get there."
Tampa Bay, with 47 points, is 12th in the East, 13 behind the Panthers for the last spot. Even if Florida, with 60 points, goes 14-15 in its final 29 games to finish with 88, the Lightning would have to go 21-7 in its final 28 games to get to 89. And that doesn't take into account how other teams pursuing the Panthers do.
"It's pretty huge," left wing Ryan Malone said of the task. "But if you're down, you have to look at it as a challenge. And if we do come back and make the playoffs, people will be, like, 'Wow, those guys really came together.' It's something we want to do in this room."
Nice to say, but the team has given no indication it can put together that kind of run.
The Lightning is 1-4-1 with nine goals in its past six games and lost 3-1 to Atlanta in the second game of a six-game homestand players said they likely had to sweep to stay in the hunt.
Tampa Bay has injuries, including No. 1 goaltender Mike Smith out with postconcussion syndrome. But that does not excuse, coach Rick Tocchet said, "why certain players weren't interested in the game."
That is why tonight's matchup with the Maple Leafs at the St. Pete Times Forum is so important; not so much in the context of a playoff push, but considering the March 4 trade deadline.
"If it's a recurring thing with some guys," Tocchet said of the lax play, "they won't be here."
Still, right wing Mark Recchi said nothing is impossible: "Until that last day when we're out of the playoffs, I'm concentrating on a playoff push. That's the way everybody should play."
"Just take one game at a time and try to win the next one and try to win the next one," St. Louis said. "We've got to get on a run, seven, eight, nine, 10 games. Until we get on a run, we can't even look at the standings."
Neither can the coach.
"We're trying to get this ship righted," Tocchet said. "That doesn't deviate to where you are in the standings. Whether we make the playoffs or not, we're trying to create our structure and when you come to the rink, being prepared to play.
"It's up to the coaching staff to make sure every day we come to work we have that attitude. If we have the attitude of wait-till-next year, we've taken a major step back."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org