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What's wrong with the Tampa Bay Lightning?

TAMPA — You do not need more analysis.

You do not need to hear about the lack of jump or jam or any of the other euphemisms for a hockey team gone sour.

And you certainly do not need to hear again how much the Lightning misses Ryan Malone and Steve Downie. Not after the Penguins beat Detroit without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on Monday. Or after the Capitals beat the Flyers without Alex Ovechkin on Tuesday.

What you need Friday night is confirmation.

You need to know the faith you put in this hockey team is justified. You need to know you weren't duped by the hot start or suckered by the early division lead. You need to see that Tampa Bay can still be the team that once played with confidence and abandon.

Because, otherwise, you might need to reassess this season.

Either Lightning players are not as good as they appeared to be in February, or they have gone missing at crunch time. It's one or the other, and neither is appealing.

Honestly, there is no other way to explain recent performances. This is not a blip or a small bump in the road. Any team can have a bad week. Even two weeks. But three weeks? With the division lead at stake and the playoffs just around the corner?

"It's time to walk the walk and talk the talk. You have to lead by example right now," said Marty St. Louis. "I've got to be on top of my game. (Steven Stamkos) has to be on top of his game. Vinny (Lecavalier) has to be on top of his game. The leaders of this team have to be on top of their games. And lately, it's been one of us, or a couple of us, but the gamebreakers have not been on top of their games at the same time.

"Do I take responsibility for what's going on lately? Absolutely. Is it demanding mentally? Yeah, it is. But being a professional athlete means demanding more and wanting more."

The Lightning did not crumble when forced to play the most ridiculous road schedule ever devised in November and December. And it did not blink when Lecavalier and Simon Gagne were together on the shelf early in the season.

But at a time when they should have been solidifying home-ice advantage, Lightning players managed to lose four games against bottom-dwelling teams and another game against a team chasing them, all in a span of 12 days.

Injuries happen. I get that. Slumps are unavoidable. I understand that, too. And pressure can certainly play with a person's mind, but there is no justification for this many losses against this many weak teams.

That Tampa Bay is still the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference is encouraging and frustrating all at the same time. It speaks to how well the Lightning played for four months and how large the cushion had once been.

But it is also a reminder of how long the Lightning had sat in first place in the Southeast Division and how close it had come to securing an enviable seed for the postseason.

"We've earned where we are. I'm not going to sell our record short just because of the last three weeks," St. Louis said. "We're going through a rough time. Does that mean we fold our tent and take our net and go home? No, we're going to keep battling."

There are signs that Lightning players are fatigued. You could point out they are fading near the end of a season and they are struggling to close out games in the third period.

And maybe that has something to do with Guy Boucher's aggressive game plan. Maybe players have worn down and have little left to offer.

It's certainly a possibility.

Boucher gave most of the team off on Wednesday and told St. Louis and Stamkos to stay home today.

But I would also point out Boucher used this same system in the American Hockey League last season, and his team got stronger as the season went on. Hamilton went 10-2-1 for Boucher last March and eventually reached the conference final.

The truth is no Lightning is among the top 50 defensemen in the league in minutes played per game. Only St. Louis and Stamkos are among the top 50 forwards. Boucher's system may be more demanding, but he has been careful to keep people as fresh as possible.

It is not fair, but the final nine games of the regular season could forever color how the 2010-11 season is remembered in Tampa Bay. If you base it on how you felt in September and October, it is probably fair to say the Lightning already has exceeded your expectations no matter what happens in the coming weeks.

But somewhere along the line, those expectations changed. The Lightning changed them. Now you want more. Now you want excitement.

Now you want the team you fell in love with.

What's wrong with the Tampa Bay Lightning? 03/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 8:35pm]
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