TAMPA — In the NHL, things move fast. From shift to shift, period to period and game to game.
How quickly things have changed for the Lightning.
Tampa Bay had perhaps its best 60-minute effort on Tuesday in a likely playoff preview against Montreal and reaped the reward for the work when Tyler Johnson scored a third-period short-handed goal. That victory clinched a playoff spot, sending the Lightning into the postseason for the first time since 2011 and just the second time since 2007.
Since clinching that playoff spot, however, Tampa Bay appears to have eased up on the gas pedal in dropping two straight by a combined score of 9-3. In both games, the Lightning looked sluggish in the first period and were outscored 5-0.
Dallas scored 40 seconds into Saturday’s game after a costly turnover by Teddy Purcell and Calgary opened the scoring on Thursday when goaltender Ben Bishop put a perfect pass on to the tape of Mike Cammalleri. Captain Steven Stamkos lost a puck to Vern Fiddler in the opening minutes of the third period Saturday that sunk any thought of a comeback.
Those are sloppy mental mistakes indicative of a team that appears to have lost a bit of its focus and sharpness since punching its ticket to the playoffs.
“Are we going to hang our hat on making the playoffs? Because if that’s the case, we aren’t going to last very long in the playoffs,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Regardless if it’s Game 1 or Game 77, we have to just continue to teach and get better and hope to pull a little bit more urgency level out of these guys.
“As a coaching staff we have to find apparently a better way to get them focused on playing a little bonus hockey since making the playoffs.’’
While the hope after clinching the playoff spot was to try to gain home-ice advantage for the first-round matchup, those hopes are all but dashed with Tampa Bay four points behind the Canadiens — who have won both of their games since losing to the Lightning — with four to play.
Since Montreal holds the first tiebreaker, regulation and overtime wins, Tampa Bay needs Montreal to lose its final three games — at Chicago and home against the New York Islanders and New York Rangers — and the Lightning would need to win three of their final four to pass the Canadiens.
Now the focus for the final week of the regular season should be on maintaining its current position and not drop into a wild-card spot with Detroit five points behind with four games to play.
To do that, Tampa Bay needs to regain the intensity and level of play put forth against Montreal.
“Hopefully this is out of our system and we can come down from our high chair after making the playoffs and realize that there are other teams that are coming and can still catch us,’’ Stamkos said. “We’ll learn from this.’’
With Tampa Bay’s players taking Sunday off and not playing again until Tuesday night when the Lightning host Toronto, it’s a chance to get away for a bit before getting back to practice and a chance to regroup and get ready for playoff mode.
“We have something to play for. It’s not like we made the playoffs and now we can relax. We want to win home ice and don’t want to be one of the wild cards,’’ Bishop said. “We want to sort of hit the reset button. (Sunday) everybody can relax and get away from the game and then when we come to work (today) ready to go. We all know what is at stake.’’
Nuts and Bolts: Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said there was no further action expected stemming from the match penalty assessed to defenseman Radko Gudas for his hit on Dallas forward Antoine Roussel during the first period on Saturday. A league spokesman also said no hearing was currently scheduled. A match penalty automatically triggers a review from the league, which could rescind the penalty if it’s deemed unwarranted. ... The Lightning signed forward Henri Ikonen to an entry-level contract and he will report to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League for the remainder of the season on an amateur tryout contract. Ikonen, 19, played in 54 games with the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League this season, posting 25 goals and 70 points to go along with 49 penalty minutes and a plus-17 rating.