PITTSBURGH — The knock on former Lightning coach Barry Melrose was his lack of preparation, personally and of the team. That is why Ryan Malone's comments about interim coach Rick Tocchet are so noteworthy.
"He's been a great coach preparing us the right way," Malone said before Tuesday's 2-0 victory over the Penguins at Mellon Arena.
"I kind of feel bad for him a little bit. The numbers and wins haven't been there for him, but the coaches have done everything they possibly could to turn this around for us. It's our job as players to get the job done."
There are subtle signs of improvement despite a 3-9-5 mark under Tocchet, compared with Melrose's 5-7-4.
Tampa Bay allowed an average 35.7 shots in Melrose's 16 games, with one game fewer than 30. The team has allowed an average 31.5 shots in Tocchet's 17 games, with four fewer than 30, including a season-low 15 against the Penguins.
That is 35 fewer total shots allowed (536-571) despite playing one more game. That is not only the defense playing better but forwards committing to helping out in the defensive zone.
"He's straightforward," Malone said of Tocchet. "He's not asking for a lot. You give everything in the tank and there's no questions asked."
DAYS OFF: By rule, NHL teams cannot practice, play or travel on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. That means Tampa Bay will not skate until the morning of Friday's game at Sunrise against the Panthers.
What does Tocchet hope the players do with their time off?
"Just reflect on the first (33) games, just what it takes to win and how bad it's been so far," he said. "When (the score has) been 1-1 with 10 minutes left, what is your thought process? Are you giving it all you have to block that shot or go to the net?"
Despite being 20 points out of first in the Southeast and 12 out of a playoff spot, with six teams to leapfrog, Tocchet said he is not throwing in the towel. His frame of reference? The Capitals, who last season went from last in the division to first in the final three months.
The difference is that after 33 games, Washington was only nine points out of the Southeast lead and six out of the playoffs.
"Is it tough? Are the odds against us? Yes," Tocchet said. "Are we going to be a story or just another statistic that doesn't make the playoffs?"
ON THE BENCH: Ice time for Steven Stamkos has fallen off a cliff, with the rookie getting just 7:47 against the Penguins and averaging 11:13 in his past five games.
"It definitely has something to do with the way I've been playing," Stamkos said. "I don't think I've been playing up to my capability. The last few games it just seems like I'm struggling a bit."
Stamkos, 18, has three goals and 13 points but just one assist in his past five games and three shots; he has zero shots in his past two games.
"It's hard when you're a first-year player to come in and focus," Tocchet said. "You play a lot more games. The pressure is on. I put him in a lot of situations, and he's been struggling the last couple of weeks. We have to take a little pressure off him."
If that means playing Stamkos less, so be it, Tocchet said.
"It's okay for him to play 10 to 12 minutes. He's going to be a hell of a hockey player, but we can't be scared of the word 'process.' Vinny Lecavalier struggled his first year. It's a process, and we can't be scared to go through the process with him."
EFFICIENT EFFORT: LW Matt Pettinger made the most of his time against the Penguins with a goal, four shots and seven hits in 10:27 of ice time.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.