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Lightning needs big win total in final 10 games for playoff hope

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper minds the bench during the first period of Tuesday's (3/21/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Arizona Coyotes at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper minds the bench during the first period of Tuesday's (3/21/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Arizona Coyotes at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Published Mar. 23, 2017

BOSTON — When Lightning coach Jon Cooper was asked if Tuesday's loss to the Coyotes was one of the most frustrating of the season, his answer was telling.

"A lot of frustrating games this year," Cooper said. "This ranks up there, though."

That there have been so many from which to choose is damning, the reason the Lightning will likely miss the playoffs. Sure, Tuesday's 5-3 loss to Arizona was inexcusable. If, in an absolute must-win game, you can't beat the second-worst team in the league at home, maybe you don't deserve to be in the postseason.

Where was the Lightning's desperation? Where was its killer instinct with a one-goal third-period lead on a team playing its third game in four nights?

"We let it slip away ourselves," center Vladislav Namestnikov said.

You've heard that line before. This was the Lightning's second loss to Arizona this season. It has lost once to Colorado, the worst team in the league. It dropped two games to Vancouver, the third worst. All points count the same, whether it's October or March. And that's 10 points left on the table. Go a middling 3-2 against those teams and the Lightning is in an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.

Now the Lightning must win tonight in Boston, where it is 6-30-6 all time, albeit 2-1-1 in its past four games in the city. Tampa Bay is not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. But trailing second wild card Boston by five points (with a game in hand) and Toronto, in third place in the Atlantic Division, by six points with 10 games to go, that means the Lightning needs a winning finish to have a playoff shot, like going 8-2. And that would likely require two wins in Boston and one in Toronto.

"There's still an opportunity there for us," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "But obviously we've got to straighten things out."

The most troubling part for Tampa Bay is that it had its fate in its hands. Even with a slew of injuries and a rookie-laden lineup, it had a chance March 16 to pull into a playoff spot for the first time since Dec. 4. It needed a win at home against the Maple Leafs. But a 5-0 drubbing by the Leafs started a three-game slide.

In one week, the Lightning lost its identity, confidence and likely a chance at a playoff spot.

The way Tampa Bay got back in the playoff conversation, with a 12-2-3 run, was a commitment to defense. It gave up two or fewer goals in six straight games, including back-to-back wins in New York and Ottawa last week.

But the Lightning has reverted to the bad habits of a complacency-filled first half of the season. It's trying to out-skill opponents and forgetting about will. Giving up five goals a game in its past three (albeit two being empty-netters) won't get it done. Neither will blocking just six shots Tuesday while the Coyotes blocked 25. Which team had something to play for?

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"All of a sudden, defending hasn't become important," Cooper said. "If you're not going to defend, you're not going to win."

Other teams figured out Tampa Bay's speed and possession-based game from back-to-back long playoff runs the past two seasons. It had to win another way. "There's no secrets in our league," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "You have to adjust."

It took too long for Tampa Bay to do so. Coaches tried through lengthy practices in November and December to pound into players' heads they needed to play another way. Instead of carrying the puck out of the zone, players were encouraged to chip it out, to cut down on costly turnovers. They had to be harder to play against, and the decisions to call up physical defensemen Jake Dotchin and Luke Witkowski from AHL Syracuse (over puck-movers like Slater Koekkoek and Matt Taormina) reflected the strategic shift.

It took desperation in early January to force change, two blunt team meetings when everyone decided to buy in. But this could be a case of too little, too late. And too many frustrating losses to count.

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