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Lightning seeks answers for slumping defense

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop remains on the ice as Lightning defenseman Matt Carle, left, and right wing Erik Condra, right, look on following a goal by Colorado's Alex Tanguay earlier this season. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Lightning goalie Ben Bishop remains on the ice as Lightning defenseman Matt Carle, left, and right wing Erik Condra, right, look on following a goal by Colorado's Alex Tanguay earlier this season. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Feb. 18, 2016

TAMPA — The Lightning woke up Wednesday morning out of a playoff spot, sitting in ninth in the Eastern Conference, with goalie Ben Bishop calling it a "gut check."

"It's a very critical time," defenseman Anton Stralman said.

And instead of a full practice, the team had a meeting with coaches about how it could dig out of its latest slide, having lost four of five heading into tonight's game against the Jets at Amalie Arena.

The obvious main topic of discussion was defense. Or lack thereof. The Lightning allowed four or more goals in three of those four losses, including Tuesday's 4-2 defeat against the Sharks.

"Obviously I think we've got a lot better in us," Stralman said. "We've proven that in the beginning of the season, top five in the league in goals against, and these last few games have been pretty terrible.

"It's a matter of addressing all the issues — there's quite a few right now — and fix them. It's what we can do."

The assumption is that the Lightning will try to address its blue line by the Feb. 29 trade deadline. It already seemed in need of help before defenseman Jason Garrison suffered a lower-body injury last week that was expected to sideline him 3-5 weeks. General manager Steve Yzerman said Garrison's injury doesn't change his deadline plans.

Acquiring a top-four defenseman is difficult, and expensive, so there are no guarantees, as much as Yzerman might try. But it's hard not to connect the dots between Garrison's absence — which began in the first period Feb. 8 against the Senators — and the skid.

"I think there's a little bit of a trickle-down effect," coach Jon Cooper said. "Is it coincidence we've lost four of five with him out, or is it that much of an impact? I don't know, but it's definitely had an impact."

Garrison had complemented partner Andrej Sustr well. Now even the top pairing of Stralman and Victor Hedman has often been split up. Other defensemen have had to play more minutes. Veteran Matt Carle, a healthy scratch in 10 of 13 games recently, has been thrust into the lineup and is minus-6 in the past three games.

But to completely blame the defensemen would be short-sighted. Forwards have had their share of lapses, with gaps out of whack and players scrambling to cover for others' mistakes. On San Jose's second goal, Hedman and forward Alex Killorn focused their attention on passer Joe Thornton behind the net, leaving Joel Pavelski wide open in front. The Lightning gave up three breakaways in Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Blues, two resulting in goals.

"We're cheating the game a little bit right now; that's basically what we're doing," Cooper said. "All the things on the defensive side of the puck for the last 21/2 years, we're going through a stretch here we're not doing those things."

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Carle receives his share of criticism and has made mistakes. The Sharks' third goal, when Carle was in San Jose's zone on the same side as partner Sustr, was "inexcusable," Cooper said. The backside was left open, and Matt Nieto beat Ondrej Palat back for a goal off a rush.

But as experienced as Carle is, having played in his 700th career game Tuesday, it's not easy to play after sitting for long stretches.

"It's the speed of the game," Carle said. "It's how fast the puck moves, the compete level. You can't really do anything to emulate game-like situations in practice. Your teammates aren't going to be chipping the puck in and forechecking like you're going to forecheck in the game. It's getting a feel for that."

Tonight almost has the feel of a must-win game, despite 26 more to go, especially with six of the next seven on the road.

"It's just been overall very frustrating for our coaching staff to watch time and time again," Carle said. "It's up to us as players to do a better job."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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