It's not that they have mentally checked out or the effort level isn't high enough. But without a big enough goal to chase toward that end line, Tampa Bay can't find that next level of motivation to push outcomes in their favor in the final weeks of the season.
The Lightning once again fell on the wrong side of the ledger following a 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday in front of an announced crowd of 18,991 at First Niagara Center.
Unlike Saturday night in Washington, in which Tampa Bay erased a four-goal deficit to earn a point before losing in overtime, there was not enough fuel in the tank to pull forth another comeback effort.
Tyler Ennis notched a first-period power-play goal while Jochen Hecht and Kevin Porter scored in the second in support of Jhonas Enroth, who made 32 stops while starting on back-to-back days. Benoit Pouliot broke Enroth's bid for back-to-back shutouts with a second-period deflection for Tampa Bay's only goal that snapped Enroth's scoreless streak at 96 minutes, 11 seconds.
The Lightning have picked up only one victory in the past six games, posting a 1-4-1 record since shutting out Carolina on April 4. With only six games remaining on the schedule, closing out the season on a positive note seems like a difficult task at this point.
“It's not fun when you are not winning, and this is a tough stretch,'' said center Steven Stamkos, who has been battling a previously undisclosed injury to his left shoulder and has only one goal in the past eight games. “We have to find a way to be professionals about it and finish off the year, and I think we've said everything we can say about our play throughout the year and how it's not good enough.''
Like Saturday, the Lightning were in early penalty trouble as Stamkos took a slashing penalty 3:56 into the game that led to Ennis' goal 13 seconds into the power play. Unlike the night before, Tampa Bay was not able to muster enough to mount the comeback despite outshooting the Sabres 33-22, including 26-12 in the final two periods.
“The season is winding down, and we've hit that point where we are out of the playoff chase and reality sort of sets in,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “They are only human, they know we only have a few games left and no chance for the playoffs … they are human, they know what is going on. But in saying that, it's a tough stretch for the guys. They play an emotionally charged, taxing game the day before, travel (to Buffalo). It's one of those post-lockout games where it's three in four (nights), and this was a third in four nights for us and it showed for both teams.''
But nobody wanted to use that as an excuse for not generating enough quality scoring chances despite playing a second-consecutive night short a forward after Tom Pyatt was lost after the first period to an upper-body injury.
“That's part of the schedule and we knew that going into the season with two games in less than 24 hours,'' defenseman Matt Carle said. “I don't think we had the start we wanted to (but) we got chances in the second and third but just couldn't get them in.''