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Lightning needs to recover after ‘reality check’

Captain Steven Stamkos said the team's play as of late has been "alarming"
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) and Florida Panthers defenseman Mark Pysyk battle for the puck during the first period on Oct. 7 in Sunrise. [Wilfredo Lee | Associated Press]
Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) and Florida Panthers defenseman Mark Pysyk battle for the puck during the first period on Oct. 7 in Sunrise. [Wilfredo Lee | Associated Press]
Published Feb. 6, 2018|Updated Feb. 6, 2018

The standings tell you that the Lightning is the best team in the NHL.

The eye test, however, reveals something entirely different. Even Tampa Bay players admit they're concerned with this funk, which has lingered longer than they thought.

They won't win a playoff series with this formula, much less hoist the Stanley Cup. You have to think GM Steve Yzerman takes that into consideration heading into the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

"It's alarming the way we're playing," captain Steven Stamkos said.

In the big picture, the sky isn't falling. The Lightning (36-14-3) is in good shape. It's in first-place and, barring a stunning collapse, is a shoo-in for a playoff berth. And Tampa Bay managed to get through a grueling stretch of 13 of 16 on the road in a respectable 9-5-2 mark, including winning five of its last eight. It did so without top defensive forward Ondrej Palat, who likely won't be back until sometime in March.

But the Lightning got fortunate, finding ways to outscore opponents even while leaning too heavily on No. 1 goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Stamkos said Tampa Bay got "exposed" by the Oilers and Connor McDavid in Monday's 6-2 loss. The Lightning allowed seven odd-man rushes. It surrendered 30-plus shots for the 13th time in 14 games. McDavid had four goals, and could have had eight.

This is a team that's lost its structure. It's lost the relentlessness that sparked its historic start. And, as troubling as anything, Tampa Bay has lost its confidence.

Veteran wing Chris Kunitz said the bench has been "flat" the past few games. Heads are hanging. Tampa Bay looked like the under-.500 team Monday, not the underachieving Oilers.

"You want to make sure you have the belief inside the lockeroom," said Kunitz, a four-time Cup champion. "That you can win any game at any point with anybody on the ice. We've got to get back to believing in each other.

"It's not going to be easy. It never is. That's why it's the NHL. Guys have to earn their space. Sometimes you have to do it by getting beat or getting embarrassed. When we get home, we want to become an elite team in this league and show that. Our standings are where we are, but we've got to go out there and prove it."

The Lightning dressing room is very self aware and accountable, with some strong voices, including Kunitz.

But now it's time to walk the walk. It starts at the top, with Stamkos (zero shots on goal Monday), who has two goals in his last 15 games. Nikita Kucherov is in a season-long 11-game goal drought. The team's best, and most consistent, line as of late has been Matt Peca, Yanni Gourde and Alex Killorn.

"It's going to be up to the guys in the room," Stamkos said. "We can say whatever we want to the media, we can say whatever we want behind closed doors. Coaches can say whatever they want to you. At the end of the day, you have to go on the ice and play. We need to be better collectively. …

"When you go through stretches like this, you go back to the basics. It's almost baby steps. You start to break out of your zone cleaner, then you start to get more confidence. Then you play through the neutral zone. The skill comes back and confidence comes back. Right now, there's not a lot of confidence on the ice, what we had at the beginning of the year."

The Lightning overwhelmed teams in the first two months of the season with a ferocious forecheck and endless edge. But it also got carried partly by Vasilevskiy, whose Vezina Trophy-caliber performances masked some of the team's flaws.

"A lot of things were going right for us," Stamkos said. "And we deserved it because we were working and playing the right way. But a lot of things went right and Vasy was Vasy. We can't expect him to pitch a shutout every night when we don't start the game on time. Even though we've won five of eight, it hasn't felt like we've played a solid game in a while."

Yzerman doesn't believe in making moves to "shake up" a struggling team, but the bottom line is he needs to address some of this team's deficiencies. The Lightning could use another veteran defenseman, whether it is the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh, the Senators' Cody Ceci. Maybe Detroit's Mike Green. Heck, dream big with Erik Karlsson.

This team would also benefit from a savvy bottom-six center, someone who can win faceoffs and perform in the playoffs. That's what this Lightning team is playing for, with Tyler Johnson saying the regular season is just an "audition for the playoffs."

But right now, the Lightning is playing like the understudy, not the star. There's plenty of time, two months, to find its game. You'd rather have this slump now than in late March or early April.

But this stretch has been revealing in both what the Lightning might need at the deadline, and how far it still has to go.

"We've been getting a couple wins that maybe we haven't deserved," Killorn said. "So it's a little bit of a reality check right now."


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