BUFFALO, N.Y. — You could understand Monday's loss in Toronto a little more, the Lightning's furious comeback falling just short against a red-hot and fast playoff-caliber team.
Tampa Bay felt it deserved a point and came up empty. It happens in a long season.
But Tuesday's 5-3 loss to the lowly Sabres warrants some concern when you look at the big picture of a first-place team fading in the second half of the season.
Sure, this was a back-to-back, and Buffalo was rested. But the Lightning is a much better team, and it needs to find a way to win these types of games, especially with the Sabres, who have the worst record in the Eastern Conference, missing their best player, Jack Eichel.
What was more damning was the Lightning's lack of push in the third period, just two shots in the first 10 minutes.
"It's not good enough," veteran defenseman Dan Girardi said. "No offense, but they're not fighting to make the playoffs, and we are. We want to stay at the top of the league. "We need to be a lot sharper and go into the third (period) for a good push, and it just wasn't there."
Now, it's not time for Tampa Bay (38-16-3) to panic, not for a team that has a league-high 79 points. No team runs the table in the regular season, and the Lightning has spent most of the past month on the road.
But the fact is Tampa Bay hasn't looked that good for a month now, 9-8-2 since Jan. 4 after starting the season 29-8-2. Which team is it? Likely somewhere in between.
"There are ups and downs in the season, and good teams control those downs," wing Ryan Callahan said. "We're in a little bit of a lull now with our play. We have to be better quickly. There's no guarantee you're in the playoffs or anything. We're still fighting."
It's easy to blame the defense, and there's no question Tampa Bay could use help on the blue line by the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
But this is a team effort, or lack thereof. The Lightning has allowed four or more goals in nine of its past 17, not surprisingly losing seven of them. The penalty kill, ranked 22nd in the league, has been porous and gave up a couple more Tuesday. The power play has been flaky, blowing a golden opportunity of nearly two minutes of a 5-on-3 in the second period against Buffalo. Tampa Bay mustered just one shot.
"Those are so big," Callahan said. "Such an emotional swing."
The Lightning looks, at times, like a lost team. Or, at least, one that has lost some of its confidence. You can deal with system or structural mistakes. But the Lightning isn't bringing enough of a 60-minute effort, forward Yanni Gourde said, and that's what is most troubling.
"Results are really big, but it's the way you play," Girardi said. "If we play a full 60-minute game, our style of hockey and we don't get the win, I think we're more happy than if we won the wrong way, honestly. We really haven't found that 60-minute game in a while."
There were some bright spots, such as Gourde scoring his 22nd goal, continuing his remarkable rookie season. Callahan brought his game, setting up a Vladislav Namestnikov goal with a great forecheck. Callahan added a goal off a rebound in the third, cutting the Sabres' lead to 4-3.
But there were too many players who were nonfactors in this one. A retaliatory penalty early in the third sapped some momentum. A missed communication on defensive zone coverage led to the Sabres' first goal.
"We're out of synch," Gourde said. And Tampa Bay is not out of this monthlong funk yet.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith