Playoff-bound Lightning must dig deeper after recent slide

Playoff-bound Tampa Bay Lightning must dig deep for more after recent slide

After beating the Montreal Canadiens last Tuesday, the Lightning have lost their past two games by a combined score of 9-3.

Jonathan Dyer / USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Lightning still have an "X" to the left of their name in the standings. That's the most important thing.

They have four regular-season games left -- three at home -- and they know they won't pack up their dressing room on April 14 with postseason games to play.

Yet, there should be an uneasy feeling about last week's results. Talk about a roller coaster.

The week went from the high of clinching the franchise's first postseason berth since 2011 on Tuesday to the plummet of being outscored a combined 9-3 in losses to the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars on Thursday and Saturday.

Something was off.

"We've just got to continue to teach and get better and pull a little more urgency level out of these guys," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Saturday, following a 5-2 loss to the Stars. "As a coaching staff, we've got to find, apparently, a better way to get focused on playing bonus hockey after the regular season ends."

This is human nature. Tampa Bay claimed points in 11 consecutive games from March 8-29. The Lightning have overachieved all year, faced crazy hurdles like Steven Stamkos' absence, the Team Canada drama and Marty St. Louis' trade to the New York Rangers.

Few expected them to contend in the Eastern Conference, let alone stand third in the Atlantic Division with 93 points entering Tuesday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They have done so much.

Only, the Lightning shouldn't be satisfied. There's more work to do. A short playoff stay, whether the first-round matchup is against the Montreal Canadiens or Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins, would be a disappointment. They've swung too hard all season to go punchless now.

"We've got to show up to play," Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said Saturday. "We've got something to play for. It's not like we've just made the playoffs, and now we can relax. We still want to get home ice."

That goal looks unlikely. The Canadiens haven't lost since dropping that dramatic result to the Lightning last Tuesday. They've won seven of eight games since March 22. They've won 10 of 12 since March 15. They hold a four-point lead over the Lightning with three games left.

The reason for this slide is easy to explain.

The Lightning fell behind 2-0 after the first period to Calgary. They trailed 3-0 after the first against Dallas. Both times, they staged a rally, cutting the deficits to one after the second period. But the comebacks fell short. The holes were too deep to overcome.

"I thought we played great in the second," Stamkos said Saturday. "We have to play like that. We can't just play like that because we're down. We have to play like that from puck drop. Hopefully, we can get this out of our system now."

Their survival depends on it.

Questions about whether Bishop has been used too much are legitimate. He has played all three games this month. Backup goaltender Anders Lindback received just two starts in March -- in losses to the Buffalo Sabres on March 6 and Penguins on March 22. Perhaps Bishop is fatigued.

But overall, the Lightning have played sloppy. Their defense has struggled. Their turnovers have stunted momentum. Cooper expects better. Everyone in the dressing room should want more as well.

"'Are you going to hang your hat on making the playoffs?'" Cooper said. "'Is that what we're doing? If that's the case, the playoffs won't last very long.'"

That's true. There are two ways to look at where the Lightning stand now.

Option No. 1: Everything that happens after this point is icing on a sweet season. Few expected Tampa Bay to be this good back in the fall, let alone after facing so many issues once the schedule began. Clinching the franchise's second playoff spot in seven seasons is a moral victory. Enjoy that pat on the back.

Option No. 2: Forget moral victories. Fight for the present. Search for the spark that made them one of the league's best for most of March. Be greedy. Be aggressive in a charge toward the Stanley Cup.

Clearly, Option No. 2 should be Tampa Bay's mission. But words only go so far. Action is needed. The coming week will be a test of heart.

"We've got to start winning some games," Bishop said.

Starting now.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.