TAMPA — For the first half of the season, the Lightning was one of the best teams playing with a lead.
When it scored first, Tampa Bay was 22-3-2, clamping down and closing out games. But since the Olympic break, during the team's biggest rut of the season, it is 1-3-2 after tallying the first goal.
That includes twice giving up one-goal leads in Monday night's 4-3 shootout loss to Phoenix, the Lightning's 10th defeat in 13 games.
"Believe me, it's troubling," coach Jon Cooper said.
"This is something we need to fix, and fast," goalie Ben Bishop said.
"Unacceptable," says captain Steven Stamkos.
Why is it happening? Truth is, there isn't just one answer. Cooper said Tampa Bay's work ethic has been there, and he said he has seen a lot of positives the past week. Had the Lightning not lost back-to-back shootouts, it'd be a "totally different mood around here."
But the reason Tampa Bay had those shootouts is it lost leads. Veteran center Valtteri Filppula said the team need to play with more mental toughness.
"I feel like some parts we're trying too hard and not playing relaxed," Filppula said. "When we're up 2-1, and they get a goal, and we're kind of, I don't want to say panic, but we lose our game even though we should play the same way. You get those stretches in a season when things aren't going your way, and hopefully we can get out of this mess soon."
Cooper believes the biggest difference has been team defense. Before the Olympics, the Lightning allowed 2.44 goals a game and gave up two or fewer in 35 of 58 games. Since the break, it has averaged 3.7 in the past seven.
"When you give up a third one, you're putting yourself in jeopardy of not winning the game," Cooper said.
Bishop has been stout all season, with Cooper suggesting that if the season ended today he'd be up for the top awards. But Bishop has given up a couple of bad goals in recent games. And, at times, there has been some leaky zone coverage in front of him, as well as some bad breaks.
"Earlier in the year, some of those bounces were going (Bishop's) way," Cooper said. "He's bailed us out a bunch."
Defenseman Eric Brewer said opponents have gotten a better read on Tampa Bay's personnel. So the margin for error is slimmer.
"If you have a period off, you might not win the game," Brewer said. "The days of just outskating teams, they're kind of gone. You're going to skate well, but you still have to do all the little things. …
"I'm aware of the fact we're not getting as many points as we should. Every game is a three-point game and when you lose games outright, it's a big problem."
Cooper put it in perspective, saying he always wanted to be in the playoff conversation in March and April. The Lightning is, entering Tuesday four points ahead of Detroit for the Eastern Conference's second wild-card spot with 17 games to go.
"Now we've just got to push ourselves," Cooper said "And will this team over the top."
Medical matters: Defenseman Sami Salo's lower-body injury, suffered Monday, is not long term, Cooper says, but the veteran is questionable for Thursday's home game against Florida. Defenseman Radko Gudas (lower-body injury) is also questionable.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.