CHICAGO ó It didnít take the sound of a door slamming in the visitorís dressing room Saturday night to sense this Lightning team is frustrated.
Tampa Bay believed it had worked hard against the Wild ó at least, harder than it did in Thursdayís lethargic loss to Vegas ó yet it dropped another game. That makes five losses in the past seven. More telling, the team has lost its swagger.
"Weíre out of sync," coach Jon Cooper put it. "The guys didnít forget how to play hockey in the last week and a half."
But they forgot how to play it together.
Gone is that mojo Nikita Kucherov often talked about in the first half of the season, when the Lightning appeared to be running away with the Eastern Conference. Now its Atlantic Division lead has shrunk to three points thanks to a surging Boston team that just might be the class of the conference right now.
Itís not time to hit the panic button, but itís getting closer.
"We didnít get where we are today by fluke," Cooper said. "But weíve got better in us, we know that."
The Lightning (31-12-3) better show it quickly, with this telling eight-game trip continuing in tough buildings in Chicago on Monday, Nashville on Tuesday and Philadelphia against the red-hot Flyers on Thursday. And the Lightning will have to do it without wing Ondrej Palat, who is back in Tampa and out indefinitely with a lower-body injury.
"Itís really going to test our will and commitment and compete to go into those buildings and have a good game and get wins," defenseman Dan Girardi said. "Weíve got to stop the bleeding."
Cooper is right. The Lightning didnít soar to the top of the standings by a fluke. This is a really talented team, boasting elite scorers in Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, and an All-Star goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy. This group is experienced, with plenty of character and leadership in the room.
But Tampa Bay isnít without flaws. Vasilevskiy was able to mask a lot of them with his brilliant play in the first half of the season, but when heís mortal, those warts are revealed.
The Lightning has issues on the back end, and those are exacerbated with the injury absence of 2017 Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman. General manager Steve Yzerman said this stretch without Hedman ó pegged at three to six weeks after he suffered a lower-body injury Jan. 11 ó would be an important evaluation time to see how much he had to bolster the blue line by the Feb. 26 trade deadline. So far, the need is obvious.
But this is not all on the defensemen. The leaky coverage in the defensive zone is on the forwards too, with several instances of opposing players left all alone in front of the Lightning net, like in two of the Wildís goals Saturday.
Faceoffs continue to be a concern, with Tampa Bay ranked 30th in the league entering Sunday. Lost draws keep ending up in the back of the Lightningís net. It happened Thursday and Saturday. You wonder if Yzerman might try to snag a faceoff man at the deadline, like Antoine Vermette from the Ducks.
The Lightning is working hard to fix its problems, and that it has had just three practices since late December hasnít helped. But players arenít on the same page, and with frustration mounting, the collective confidence has taken a dip.
"Things were definitely going our way at the beginning of the year," wing Alex Killorn said. "We were earning those bounces, but things were definitely going our way. You play in this league long enough, (you) realize there are going to be highs and lows. Itís just a matter of working your way out of them."
The Lightning has scored just four goals in its past three games, and you can see that is getting to some of the players. Stamkos hasnít scored in eight games and didnít even register a shot on goal Saturday. Kucherov is minus-5 in his past two games. That just makes it more glaring that Tampa Bay isnít getting much out of its bottom six, from Ryan Callahanís one goal in 36 games to Killornís five in 46.
Maybe callups from AHL Syracuse can provide a spark, like they did last season. With Palat out, Tampa Bay recalled centers Matthew Peca and Michael Bournival on Sunday. The two were expected to join the Lightning today.
No, the Lightning didnít forget how to play hockey in a week and a half. And maybe sometime in June, this stretch will be a distant memory.
But at this point, itís getting harder to remember that time not too long ago when Tampa Bay was the toast of the league.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
at Blackhawks, 8:30, Chicago