NEW YORK — The last thing Guy Boucher wanted to do was build the Lightning's four-game road trip into a monolithic challenge.
One game at a time is how the coach instructed players to focus.
Good advice because taken as a whole, the trip — beginning tonight against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and continuing to Boston, Pittsburgh and New Jersey — is, perhaps, Tampa Bay's most daunting and critical of the season given the opponents and confluence of circumstances.
"Let's not kid ourselves," Boucher said. "It's the toughest of the year."
Added defenseman Matt Carle: "It's going to be big for us to try to get off on the right foot, especially with what we've been going through as a team."
Consider what Tampa Bay, losers of three of its past four games, is facing:
• While it is tied with the Hurricanes and Jets atop the Southeast Division, Tampa Bay (9-9-1) is just four points from the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
• The power play is on a 4-for-41 stretch, and its road power play entered Wednesday 25th in the 30-team league at 10.7 percent (3-for-28).
• Continuing its struggles from last season, the Lightning is 3-5-0 on the road, including 1-5-0 against teams other than Carolina.
• Though Mathieu Garon, who has been steadier in net than Anders Lindback, gets the start tonight, the tandem entered Wednesday 26th in the league with a 3.09 goals-against average and .897 save percentage.
It might not be make-or-break — "Even if we win all four games, we'd still have a scenario where you're still going to look at the standings and it's going to be tight," Carle said — but Tampa Bay needs some success on this trip to reinforce Boucher's message that, despite recent losses, things are going in the right direction.
That is why Boucher said he refuses to become part of "the fellowship of the miserable who just always see the negative side of things."
"Right now, it's my responsibility to not panic and make sure the message that is transmitted to the players is the right one, and that is we have to keep on doing what we're doing if you want results," he said. "The minute we get discouraged or we change, that's when we sink."
So Boucher stressed that Tampa Bay in Tuesday's 2-1 loss outchanced Buffalo 19-7, "dominated, plain and simple" and was stymied only by goalie Ryan Miller.
Boucher also told his players to forget the big picture when it comes to the road trip.
"We're not taking on four teams (tonight). We're taking on one," Boucher said of the Rangers. "We've just got to keep playing the way we're playing and continue improving."
For Carle, that means better puck management.
"A lot of times, the goals we're giving up, we're shooting ourselves in the foot; turning the puck over and it ends up in our net," he said. "If we can eliminate those, it will be much better."
Bottom line, center Steven Stamkos said, "We're still in a battle for first place in our division. We're still in the fight. We have to find a way to get points. There's no excuses now. We have to find a way."
SALO UPDATE: Defenseman Sami Salo, who left Tuesday's game in the second period with a lower-body injury, will not play against the Rangers though he could play Saturday at Boston, Boucher said. Brendan Mikkelson, who with right wing Pierre-Cedric Labrie was recalled Wednesday from AHL Syracuse after two-week conditioning assignments, is expected to play tonight as Boucher said he will dress seven defensemen.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @LightningTimes.