Solutions to slump elude Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop (30), center, sits on the bench during the first period of Thursday's (2/2/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Ottawa Senators at Amalie Arena in Tampa. (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop (30), center, sits on the bench during the first period of Thursday's (2/2/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Ottawa Senators at Amalie Arena in Tampa. (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
Published Feb. 4, 2017

TAMPA — Veteran Lightning center Brian Boyle said he never has been in this bad of a stretch.

Not in high school. Not as a kid.

And in the Lightning dressing room, he's not alone.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find more than two people who have ever been in this in their career," center Tyler Johnson said.

For a Lightning team that's coming off back-to-back lengthy playoff runs, this is uncharted territory. Tampa Bay (22-24-6) has dropped six of its past seven games and fallen to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Why has this funk lasted so long? No one seems to know how to get out of it. Even coach Jon Cooper, who has won at every one of his coaching stops, has never lived through a stretch like this.

Boyle said players are "banging our heads against the wall."

"You're up at night, can't go to sleep. It's driving us all crazy," he said. "There's no potion, like, 'We'll have that attitude and maybe we'll start getting some bounces.' We've got to work for it.'"

Hard work is one thing. But the Lightning looks like a team that has lost its collective confidence. Remember the 2014-15 Lightning that was so mentally tough, never losing more than two in a row all season? This group has most of the same players but, for whatever reason, appears fragile. The swagger is gone. So is the killer instinct. Johnson even passed on a breakaway in Tuesday's loss to the Bruins.

"Maybe in the past we knew we were going to come back, or we knew something good was going to happen," Cooper said. "We were going to work our way through it. Now it's a little bit of they're just waiting for something bad to happen. And that's the part they've go to get over."

The easy thing to do is demand changes. This stretch has to be eating at general manager Steve Yzerman, who was declared the unanimous winner of the offseason for bringing the band back together. He likely never thought his prize could be a lottery draft pick. Yzerman doesn't believe in making a trade to shake up a team, but there's no doubt he needs to try to find ways to improve it. This roster deserved another shot at the Stanley Cup, but it might have grown stale.

There's no short-term fix that will save this season. Yzerman has to think big picture heading toward the March 1 trade deadline. Who is part of his core? Who will be on the team next season and beyond?

Everyone should share the blame, including Cooper. But Cooper's body of work the past three seasons should buy him time and Yzerman's benefit of the doubt. It's still up to Cooper, however, to make adjustments and find a way to galvanize his team. That's what he has been known for in his career.

Boyle believes the answers are in the dressing room. "Look at the names," he said. "We've done it; we can do it again."

One problem is that — apart from Boyle, Victor Hedman, Jonathan Drouin and maybe a few others — not many regulars have been better than they were last season.

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"For me, personally, and for some of the other guys, we've got to lead the way," Hedman said. "There's no hiding. We've got to accept that. … We owe it to our fans, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the guy next to us."

The Lightning is a long shot to make the playoffs right now. It is eight points out of the Eastern Conference's final wild-card spot. If the players quit, "it's going to get ugly," Boyle rightly said.

The Blues fired future Hall of Fame coach Ken Hitchcock on Wednesday, GM Doug Armstrong citing among the team's problems that players had become "independent contractors," a harsh indictment. As Cooper said, it's not about the names on the back of the jerseys, it's about the "crest at the front. That's what you're playing for."

"This is where you see the mental fortitude of some of the guys," he said. "How painful is it at the end of these types of games? Are you just mentally and physically exhausted? Or are guys taking off their equipment and not even needing to shower? You see the character and what's going on.

"One thing I know about the group is it's a proud group. There's a reason we've won in the past. For whatever reason, it's not happening for us right now. You've got to find a way."