TAMPA — A soft pass here, a missed coverage assignment there, a puck lost in the corner by the goaltender.
These are the type of mental errors a team trying to get into the postseason can ill afford to make. Yet, since returning from the Olympic break, those mistakes have crept into the Lightning’s game and proven costly.
With 17 games remaining in the season, Tampa Bay holds the first of two Eastern Conference wild cards, two points ahead of the second wild-card spot, yet just two points behind Montreal for third in the Atlantic Division.
With points at a premium, the Lightning can’t afford to be giving any away.
“I’m not a big guy who watches the standings a ton, but I think you could feel that we are not getting points,’’ defenseman Eric Brewer said. “I think at this time of year, every game is a three-point game, so when you lose a game outright it’s a big problem.’’
Tampa Bay has just three wins in the past 13 games (3-8-2). Since the Olympic break, the Lightning are 1-4-2.
The most alarming aspect of Tampa Bay’s slide is that it had a lead in all but one of the seven games. In six of the seven, it was either tied or in the lead heading into the third period, but grabbed only four out of 12 possible points in those games.
Prior to the Olympic break, the Lightning were 22-3-1 when scoring the first goal. They are 1-3-2 since the break.
“Believe me, it’s troubling that these kind of things are happening,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said.
In a loss at Colorado, a bad cross-ice pass in the defensive zone by Matt Carle led to the go-ahead goal in the third period. Poor defensive-zone coverage helped Tampa Bay blow a two-goal lead in St. Louis. Goaltender Ben Bishop lost track of a puck in the corner and failed to locate it before Johnny Boychuk sent a slap shot from the point that hit Bishop’s stick and went in for a third-period tying goal in a shootout loss to Boston.
On Monday against Phoenix, a soft back pass by Victor Hedman early in the third allowed Martin Erat to tap the puck into an open net for a tying goal. Later, blown coverage off a faceoff allowed the Coyotes to take the lead. Though the Lightning came back to tie the game late before falling in a shootout, Tampa Bay might not have been in that position with a sharper focus.
It’s that mental toughness that has been absent the past two weeks.
“You just have to stay mentally sharp, play your game, and you can’t really change your game when you have the lead,” said center Tyler Johnson, who has been to the American Hockey League finals the past two years. “You have to do the things that got you that lead in the first place.
“I think we kind of got away from that a little bit, just some unlucky things here and there (and) some mental errors that normally would never happen.’’
But they have been happening, at a bit of an alarming pace. And they have taken away from some of the positive elements of Tampa Bay’s game during this slide.
“I feel like we are trying, and maybe some parts we are trying too hard,’’ center Valtteri Filppula said. “When we are up one (goal) and they get a goal, I don’t want to say we panic, but we kind of lose our game even though we should play the same way.
“You get those stretches in a season when things aren’t going your way and hopefully we can get out of this mess soon.’’