TAMPA — Whether the Lightning’s 7-2 loss Tuesday in Nashville will represent rock bottom for them remains to be seen, but Tampa Bay has little time to sit on its worst effort of the season.
Head coach Jon Cooper chalked the game up as a one-off. Take a book, open to a page, and turn it, he said afterward. “That’s how you do it.”
The Lightning still entered Wednesday tied for the Central Division lead with the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers (all with 58 points) with 14 games remaining in the regular season. But the struggles Tampa Bay has experienced over its past 10 games come as it enters a critical part of its schedule.
The Lightning return home to play the Panthers and Hurricanes the next four games, pivotal head-to-head matchups against teams jockeying for the division lead.
The Lightning lost just six times in their first 32 games but have fallen six times in their last 10. Tuesday marked the second time in five games they lost by four goals or more and the fourth time in five games they’ve allowed four goals or more.
But the loss to the Predators was different, because the Lightning questioned their effort — and rightfully so. On a night they should have been rejuvenated by the acquisition of David Savard and the return of Mitchell Stephens after a two-month injury absence, there was too much sloppy play and too many idle feet.
“There was only one team playing (Tuesday),” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “And (the Predators) were quicker than us and more detailed in their structure. That was one of the worst performances I’ve seen in a Lightning uniform by our group. Tough time of the year to do that when we get a lot of excitement there with a new addition and guys coming back.
“But at the end of the day, we’ve got to understand that we’ve got a lot of work to do if we want to at least give ourselves a chance to make anything special out of this year. Not to say I don’t have a lot of belief in this group. There’s no question what we’re capable of. But (Tuesday), it was an absolute embarrassment.”
The Lightning allowed five first-period rushes, and three resulted in Nashville goals against backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney. The Lightning are just 3-6-1 this season without starter Andrei Vasilevskiy (25-6-1) in net.
The Lightning’s lapses — turnovers leading to odd-man rushes and other scoring opportunities — continued. Combine that with a season-worst 31-percent faceoff percentage that had them chasing possessions much of the game and the continued goal droughts of Anthony Cirelli (12 games), Tyler Johnson (11 games), Ondrej Palat (nine games) and Alex Killorn (eight games without a point), and the Lightning had a lot to work through after the game.
“It’s pretty quiet in there,” said McDonagh, who foreshadowed a presumptive team meeting after the game. “I think guys need to realize and understand that we’re missing some two big pieces there with Stammer (Steven Stamkos, out the past two games with an injury) and Kuch (Nikita Kucherov, who has missed the entire regular season following hip surgery), but this is our group. This is the group that’s going to take us as far as it’s going to take us.
“... There’s no more additions gonna be made. There’s no more moves to be made. It’s up to this group to find its identity back again and understand what made us successful last year. There’s no question we’ve got the pieces to do it, but we need to slowly start building our game here and get it back to where it needs to be to at least give ourselves a chance.”
All will be forgotten with a strong week against the Panthers and Hurricanes, and Cooper has always had faith in his team’s resolve. Its resiliency will be tested, as well, as it tries to rebound from its lowest point of the season.
“It doesn’t happen all that frequently to us, and this team’s growing together,” Cooper said. “We’ve done a lot of good things together. A lot of bad came out (Tuesday).. ... But I love our group, I love our team.
“We’re going to be okay. We’ve just got to move on from this, and it’s often times when you stumble like this and (make) a lot of mental mistakes, which is what it was, sometimes it flips on the urgency switch. So, hopefully that switch gets flipped on (Thursday against Florida).”
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