DALLAS — A month ago, the Lightning appeared to be locked into a playoff spot and challenging for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
One game out of the Olympic break, that playoff spot looks a bit more tenuous as Tampa Bay finds itself tied with Toronto for third in the division standings and only six points ahead of the ninth-place team in the Eastern Conference, Washington.
Coming off Thursday’s loss in Nashville, when the Lightning mustered seven shots on goal in the final two periods while blowing a two-goal lead in what coach Jon Cooper called a “disgraceful embarrassment,” Tampa Bay went back to work on Friday with an up-tempo practice. Missing for most of Thursday’s game was the work ethic that has put the Lightning in prime position to return to the postseason for the first time in three seasons.
If that work ethic fails to return in the final 23 games of the season, all that hard work put forth in the first four months of the season will result in one of the most disappointing endings imaginable.
“We work hard, and we’ve been told that from other teams, so the fact that that did happen (Thursday) is a concern,’’ Cooper said. “Do I expect that to continue? No, but it’s just really a tough pill to swallow at any time of the year, but especially ... when we have a team that is trying to make the playoffs. We don’t have a lot of games left to play, and I felt our compete level was low, and that’s something the players can control. ... They can control their work ethic, and that was the issue I had (Thursday) night.’’
With the trade deadline approaching on Wednesday, there has been plenty of speculation and rumors regarding captain Marty St. Louis, who reportedly has requested a trade to the New York Rangers after he was originally left off the Canadian Olympic team. Though St. Louis has declined to discuss the situation in public and has neither confirmed nor denied the report, it’s natural to assume the situation would be a distraction in the locker room, particularly with such a high-profile player.
“Rumors and trade talks affect lots of teams this time of year, but as a team, you have to try to keep it outside the dressing room and focus on the task every day,’’ St. Louis said. “When it’s a higher-profile player, it’s talked about more. But still, as a group you have to keep it outside the dressing room.’’
St. Louis has been able to keep any of those thoughts and distractions away from his play on the ice, as he has points in 16 of the 17 games since Jan. 7, the day he was initially left off the Olympic roster, including his 50th career multi-goal game on Thursday. But until Wednesday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline passes, the possibility of seeing the team’s leading scorer, captain and arguably the best player in franchise history moved at his request will hang over the team.
As St. Louis expressed, his name is sure to come up in media reports numerous times in the coming days, as it did on Friday when former Lightning general manager Brian Lawton told Sportsnet Central that St. Louis had requested a deal to the Rangers at the trade deadline in 2009, but the team was not in good shape at the time and the future was more unclear under the previous ownership.
But no matter what is taking place in and around the team, those inside the locker room want to keep things insulated and get back to the task at hand.
“We’ve addressed it, and what goes on outside this locker room is out of our control, the only thing we can control is ourselves and how we play, and we are not going to let it distract us, whoever it is,’’ alternate captain Nate Thompson said. “We are going to work hard.’’