By JOE SMITH
TAMPA — The Lightning returns today to Sunrise, where many players say they were dealt the "wake-up call" that sparked its 9-2-1 start.
It was just Game No. 2, but after a 5-4 loss to the Panthers in which Tampa Bay allowed 48 shots, there was a sense in the locker room that something had to change. And change quickly. The Lightning was 1-1 but felt like it was outplayed in both games — the first also against the Panthers, a 5-3 win — giving up way too many scoring chances.
"Right after the (second) game we knew we had to be better," wing Alex Killorn said. "Nothing was said. It was kind of a feeling."
The Lightning responded by sweeping a three-game, measuring-stick home stand against the Capitals, Penguins and Blues, teams Tampa Bay has historically struggled against. Players say this team is showing signs of self-correction and accountability it lacked early last season during a slow start that led to it missing the playoffs.
This team is reminiscent of the 2014-15 Lightning that didn't lose more than two in a row until the Stanley Cup final. You could sense it during Sunday's strong, fast-paced practice after Saturday's 4-1 loss to the Ducks, just the Lightning's second regulation loss in 12 games.
"It's just that accountability to each other in this room," veteran wing Ryan Callahan said. "I think missing the playoffs last year was such a big wake-up call to a lot of guys in here. We don't want to let anything slip because you don't want to be back in that situation. Where maybe last year, (after going to) the Cup final (in 2014-15) and conference final (2015-16) … (you) have a little slip, you kind of push it aside because you think you'll be there again. Now we realize it's not a given."
Defenseman Anton Stralman said that despite the early struggles last season and all the warning signs, the alarm didn't go off quickly enough for the players. By the time Tampa Bay snapped out of it, it was too late. It had fallen to last place in the Eastern Conference by early February.
"You kind of get lulled into that false sense that, 'Things will be fine. We'll figure it out as the season goes along,' " Killorn said. "Every game is so important. Last year we missed (the playoffs) by a point. You take it seriously."
And this is not just about addressing issues after losses. It's about doing it after wins, too. Captain Steven Stamkos lamented how the Lightning played in the third period of a 5-1 win in Carolina last week.
"You win a game but look at the game after, 'How did you play?' " Callahan said. "Sometimes you lose a game and look at the game and say, 'We played pretty well. We like our game; let's continue with that.' That honesty is what helps you get better and grow as a team."
Said Killorn: "You're not going to win 82 games. Everyone understands that. But when you do have tough games, it's how you respond, and I think great teams respond well."
The Lightning didn't think it played awfully against the Ducks, who scored two power-play goals and a crushing buzzer-beater to end the second period. Tampa Bay did have some costly turnovers and struggled to fight through Anaheim's clogging of the neutral zone.
Coach Jon Cooper said he really liked the way the team practiced Sunday, which he dubbed a good sign. Not that he's surprised.
"You can tell this is a determined group," Cooper said. "Are they going to play perfect hockey every single night? It's really tough to do that. But in this short season so far, they've responded to challenges. And (Monday) is definitely a challenge. To me, this is a barometer-test game for us. I thought (the Panthers) knocked us around pretty good the first two games. Let's see where we're at."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.