NEW YORK — An exasperated Brian Boyle sat back in his locker stall Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. He spoke softly. His tone, however, was pointed.
The veteran Lightning center said his team was "outclassed" by the Rangers in a 6-1 loss, the team's third straight. It's only nine games in, but Boyle said it's a big enough sample size to "sound the alarms."
"We've got to remember we're a good team," he said.
It's about time the Lightning starts playing like one. Tampa Bay (5-4-0), picked by many as favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup, is floundering heading into tonight's game against the Islanders in Brooklyn. It looks lost. And it's not just that the Lightning is losing, it's how. Coach Jon Cooper called the whole team passengers Sunday, a startling indictment for a group that's supposed to be in the driver's seat in the Eastern Conference.
"We have to stop the bleeding as fast as we can," wing Ryan Callahan said. "It's not like we haven't done it before with this group. It doesn't concern us that way. But it needs to be better and it needs to be better right now."
The Lightning has done it before with this group, and that's what is troubling. Last season Tampa Bay lost three straight in regulation from Oct. 27-31. Coming off a long playoff run, the team coasted. Cooper said they might have been reading their press clippings. Eventually they got on a run to the Eastern Conference final.
For a team that supposedly learned from that experience, it sure looks like more of the same. And, as captain Steven Stamkos says, there are no excuses this time. No contract distractions. No trade requests. The band is back together. But even as great as the Beatles were, they still had to show up. Hey Jude didn't play itself.
Urgency has been lacking with the Lightning, which has scored in the first period in just one of nine games. It has enough skill to rally, and it did in its first three wins, one against Florida requiring a miraculous last-second shot by Stamkos to force overtime.
There have been flashes of brilliance. The Lightning's win in Ottawa to start the road trip was its most complete game. Tampa Bay played well in Montreal before blowing a third-period lead in a 3-1 loss. Cooper thinks that finish has bled into the past two flat, back-to-back defeats.
"We've had success the last couple years and teams are using our model and trying to match it," Boyle said. "They're ready for us."
Everyone has a hand in this. Alex Killorn, despite a team-high matching six goals, has been bad the past two games, with some uncharacteristically soft plays. The Lightning hasn't gotten much from Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, minus-8 each. Rookie Brayden Point might be its most consistent forward, which is saying something. The power play is 5-for-28 (17.8 percent) since opening night. On the blueline, even typically steady Jason Garrison is minus-8, and the Lightning recalled defenseman Slater Koekkoek on Monday, reassigning Matt Taormina.
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"When we fall out of our structure, everything kind of falls apart," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "It's hard to play when everyone is on their own page."
How to snap out of this?
Stralman said "everyone has to commit." Play together. Win 50-50 battles. Get their noses dirty. Blend will with their skill.
"We can't sit here and sulk on it or anything," goalie Ben Bishop said. "There's no time to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves. It's about turning the page."