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It's late, but Lightning finds a fun, winning vibe

"It looks like the old Tampa," wing Alex Killorn, right, said. [AP photo]
"It looks like the old Tampa," wing Alex Killorn, right, said. [AP photo]
Published Feb. 25, 2017

TAMPA — You can sense a completely different vibe with the Lightning the past month.

It has a lot of jump and fight. (Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Flames was a frustrating anomaly.) Practices are filled with chatter. The swagger seems back, with players finally looking like they're having fun again.

A recent seven-game points streak will do that.

"It looks like the old Tampa," wing Alex Killorn said.

This didn't happen overnight. And it might be happening too late for the Lightning to climb back into a playoff spot. But two blunt team meetings in early January sparked the Lightning's turnaround, resetting the team's standards and instilling needed accountability. Tampa Bay has points in 12 of the past 18 games, 10 of which were on the road.

"It was one of those things, we saw where we were in the standings and we said, 'If this boat doesn't turn around, it's going to be over sooner than you think,' " Killorn said. "It took a little looking in the mirror and saying what needed to be done, what we needed out of certain guys. I don't know if exactly right then and there it turned. But it seemed like we're going in the right direction with our play."

Desperation often leads to change, and this was no different. The Lightning was in the midst of a four-game losing streak in early January, soon falling to the Eastern Conference basement.

The morning of the Lightning's 6-2 loss in Pittsburgh on Jan. 7, coach Jon Cooper met with a handful of veteran players at the team hotel. By that time, not many veterans were around, with Brian Boyle, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan and Ben Bishop injured and back in Tampa. The lineup looked like AHL Syracuse's, with Adam Erne, Michael Bournival, Slater Koekkoek and Luke Witkowski in it.

But Cooper, along with the likes of Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman, laid the foundation for a players-only meeting that would take place the following day in Tampa. The players went around the room, with everyone getting a chance to speak up and say what they (and the team) needed to do better.

"It definitely wasn't a fun meeting," Johnson said.

There were some general themes, like sticking to their structure and playing much better in their defensive zone. But, Killorn said, it was also about holding each other accountable individually. And everyone spoke up, from rookies to alternate captains. There was some levity when goalie Adam Wilcox, called up a few days earlier, had to figure out what he could do better.

"You hear certain voices a lot, but there are guys that feel a certain way or think things should be done a certain way and don't feel like it's their place to say something," Killorn said. "We wanted to hear from everyone."

Something else had been missing: fun. In a season filled with injuries and inconsistencies, the mood wasn't always great in the locker room or practice.

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"It was on everybody," Johnson said. "It takes everyone making some jokes here or there, even if things aren't going your way. Instead of being (mad), you almost have to kind of laugh at it, say, 'You know what, we'll get it next time.' "

After the meeting, the team had back-to-back practices before its next game. It was kind of a mini-training camp. The players worked on subtle strategic changes, playing more of a zone coverage in their end. Realizing it was spending too much time in its zone — resulting in turnovers — Tampa Bay switched from trying to carry the puck out of the zone to chipping it out.

It began to work. After allowing 22 goals in a four-game losing streak, the Lightning gave up two goals or fewer in eight of the next 10 games. Improved goaltending played a role, with Bishop winning five straight starts. The emergence of rookie defenseman Jake Dotchin has improved the righty-lefty balance of the blue line. Rookie center Brayden Point has produced since his late January return, and Jonathan Drouin has been a highlight reel.

But it all started with a few challenging chats.

"We were all the reason we were in 16th place," Boyle said. "So we could all be the reason to get out of it. That's what we talked about."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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