TAMPA — The door to the Lightning dressing room remained closed a little longer than usual Thursday night, and that wasn’t surprising.
After the kind of performance displayed in its 4-1 loss to the expansion Golden Knights, this had players-only meeting written all over it. No specifics were given about what was discussed.
"None of your business," Anton Stralman said.
But what players did say after the doors were open was telling about what’s behind this recent funk, the Lightning having lost four of its past six.
"It all starts with how we work," Stralman said. "And we’re not a good team when we don’t work. And (Thursday) was one of those nights we didn’t show.
"(Vegas) is as good team, but I don’t think they did anything remarkable out there. They played simple, and we just didn’t put up a fight. And that’s on us."
The Lightning (31-11-3) is still in a good position, the best team in the East, though its Atlantic Division lead on surging second-place Boston is shrinking, down to five points with the Bruins holding a game in hand.
"By no means is there panic in this room," captain Steven Stamkos said. "Absolutely not."
But Stamkos said that starting with himself, the team needs to give a more "passionate performance" in its end. The defensive issues that had crept into the Lightning’s game before its bye week, even with now-hurt Victor Hedman in the lineup, continued to show up Thursday, Tampa Bay’s first game back from its bye.
Coach Jon Cooper said the Lightning played hard, not smart, and forgot about its own net. Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov were minus-3.
"As a leader, I have to be a lot better, set an example," Stamkos said.
Stralman was minus-2. And this won’t get any easier with Hedman — who suffered a lower-body injury Jan. 11 against the Flames, the last game before the bye — out three to six weeks.
"Just attention to detail. It’s thinking of the right net," Stamkos said. "This group, we know when we’re on our game, taking care of our own end, we’re not having to rely on (goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy) to make 10-bell saves."
Vasilevskiy, an All-Star and Vezina Trophy candidate, is starting to look human. He has allowed 19 total goals in his past four starts. Though you can’t pin this loss on Vasilevskiy, he didn’t seem to be seeing the puck as well as he usually does. Those team warts Vasilevskiy has covered up for portions of this season are in the open, Thursday the sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena (and a TV audience) to see.
General manager Steve Yzerman had said this period without Hedman would be key to see how much he’d have to address his blue line at the trade deadline. And this wasn’t a good start. Rookie Mikhail Sergachev, who needs to play a bigger role, had a few lapses, including getting caught in the neutral zone on Vegas’ third goal. Even Stralman, the team’s steadiest defenseman left, was uncharacteristically beaten on a nifty toe-drag goal by David Perron.
The Lightning’s struggles in the faceoff circle loomed large, with Vegas scoring two of its goals off draws. Tampa Bay entered Thursday ranked 30th in the league in the circle, something it might have to address by the deadline.
The Lightning was fine in the offensive zone and created its share of chances. Ondrej Palat scored a power-play goal midway through the second to cut the Golden Knights’ lead to 2-1. Tampa Bay seemed to gather some momentum, with Stamkos nearly setting up Kucherov off a rush. Then, moments later, Perron scored off a Vegas rush, and it seemed to take the air out of the Tampa Bay bench.
But there wasn’t enough push by the Lightning in the third period, and that was the theme in the dressing room.
"If you lose to a better team that night when you give it you’re all, you tip your cap," Stralman said. "But when you beat yourself like (Thursday), it’s unacceptable."
First Period—1, Vegas, Neal 19 (Engelland, Perron), 0:56. 2, Vegas, Schmidt 3 (Haula, McNabb), 16:03. Penalties—None.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, Palat 8 (Stamkos, Kucherov), 10:18 (pp). 4, Vegas, Perron 10 (Engelland, Theodore), 17:43. Penalties—Karlsson, VGK, (tripping), 9:04; Gourde, TB, (hooking), 14:00.
Third Period—5, Vegas, Karlsson 24 (Marchessault), 0:18. Penalties—Dotchin, TB, (slashing), 3:29; Bellemare, VGK, (interference), 9:42; Karlsson, VGK, (tripping), 11:23; Dotchin, TB, (roughing), 19:34; Lindberg, VGK, (roughing), 19:34; Tuch, VGK, (roughing), 19:34; Paquette, TB, (roughing), 19:34. Shots on Goal—Vegas 8-11-11—30. Tampa Bay 12-9-8—29. Power-play opportunities—Vegas 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 1 of 3. Goalies—Vegas, Fleury 10-3-2 (29 shots-28 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 27-8-2 (30-26).