TAMPA — Rick Tocchet pulled the plug on his goaltender Tuesday night. Gary Bettman is expected to pull the plug on the owners this afternoon. And, the way things are going for the Lightning, you may want to get ready to pull the plug on another season.
By itself, a 7-2 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday night is a fairly insignificant setback in the grand scheme of a long season. But in the context of where the Lightning was coming from, and how far it still has to go, this loss is about as demoralizing as it gets.
"Losing s-----," Tocchet said. "But, you know, it's a loss and we've got to pick ourselves up."
You could make a case this was the biggest game the Lightning has played in nearly three years. The biggest home game. The biggest regular-season game. The biggest bounceback game. A lot of these players have gone more than 200 games and more than 30 months without knowing the urgency of a big night in the middle of a tense playoff drive.
Yet, other than Steven Stamkos, no one did anything special. No one had a memorable effort. The Lightning kept it interesting for 40 minutes, but you never got the feeling it was in control of the game. Tampa Bay took a lead in the second period and couldn't even hold it for three minutes.
You could say it all came down to a couple of mistakes, and a couple of key penalties early in the third period. But, at this point in the season, you would prefer if your players were beyond looking for plausible explanations.
I mean, this was a desperate team? A team hoping to impress the new owner who is due in town any moment? A team trying to convince the general manager that a trade before today's deadline could make a difference in the final 20 games?
Atlanta jumped over Tampa Bay in the standings Tuesday night. So did the Rangers. And Montreal put a little more distance between Tampa Bay and a playoff position.
What the Lightning showed, more than anything else, is that the standings don't really matter. Tampa Bay may still be just a couple of points out of the eighth playoff spot, but it is worlds away from being a dangerous contender.
"Hockey is a game of mistakes, and we all make our mistakes," said Marty St. Louis, who had one assist. "But it's the ones we make at key times that hurt you."
You could look at the Lightning's mistakes in the defensive zone and say that was the difference in the outcome. You could also look at the opportunities that went unrealized and say those were just as critical.
When is someone else going to step up? A goaltender? A scorer? A crisis intervention crew?
No team is more dependent on one scorer than the Lightning. Stamkos has scored 22.8 percent of Tampa Bay's goals this season, which is the highest percentage in the league. That's a greater percentage than Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh. Greater than Marian Gaborik in New York.
And the problem doesn't end with Stamkos. His linemates have provided most of the other scoring, particularly in recent games. All of which means, for about 25 minutes a night, the Lightning has had little hope of scoring. And that's a tough way to survive.
Going back to the final week before the Olympic break, the Lightning has lost four consecutive games and given up 22 goals.
"We were up 2-1 and we had a couple of chances to make it 3-1," Tocchet said. "It's tough. But, like I said, we worked hard. We did."
General manager Brian Lawton is convinced the Lightning is better than its record. And, I suppose, there are some legitimate points that could be made. For instance, Vinny Lecavalier is playing like a guy unfamiliar with his own talent, and goaltender Mike Smith has had another season disrupted by injury.
Still, maybe we're expecting too much from a group of players who have made as much improvement in the standings as just about any team in the Eastern Conference.
Here's the thing:
These guys don't do anything particularly well. They have one of the top goal-scorers in the league, but they have no balance on offense. The defense is no longer the joke it was last season, but it's hardly stifling. This team has no identity. No niche it can claim as its own.
Consequently, the Lightning has little room for error. Which means Tampa Bay needs every player to pull his weight on virtually every shift because there's not enough talent to overcome sloppy play.
And that's becoming more apparent by the hour.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]