EDMONTON – Coach Jon Cooper believed this eight-game road trip would be a telling, "show-us-what-we're-made-of" moment in the Lightning's season.
And the fact Tampa Bay has won five of the first seven, while missing Victor Hedman and Ondrej Palat for a good chunk of it, has to be encouraging.
But judging by the sound of Cooper laying into his team after Saturday's 4-2 win in Vancouver, Tampa Bay (36-13-3) still has a long way to go.
"I don't think we're playing our best hockey, I'll be honest," Cooper said.
"Not good enough," Hedman said.
There's been flashes, but not enough full 60-minute performances. Saturday was the perfect example. The Lightning had a three-goal, third-period lead, but the Canucks rallied back to pull within one. Had Cory Conacher not received- and converted – a penalty shot with four minutes to go, this could have been an ugly collapse.
"Who knows what would have happened?" Cooper said. "Because it wasn't looking too good."
The Lightning (36-13-3) is in good shape. It's still atop the Eastern Conference and five points ahead of surging second-place Boston in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay has 75 points, 25 more than it had through 52 games last season. And there's something to be said for a team that finds a way to win, ugly or not.
But this isn't the kind of hockey that gets it done in April, May and June, when it really matters. The Lightning has given up 30 or more shots in 12 of the last 13 games, often relying on its goaltending, specifically Andrei Vasilevskiy, to bail them out. It's losing puck battles, and it's structure, in the defensive zone.
"We have to make sure we're learning how to win the right way," said veteran wing Chris Kunitz, a four-time Stanley Cup champion. "We're trying to focus on being a team who can win in the playoffs, and this is not a remedy to get out to a lead and try to win a series against teams. You have to go out and dictate play all over the ice."
That's what Tampa Bay did in its historic start to the season. It was relentless. It overwhelmed teams. That consistent work ethic – that perfect blend of will and skill – has been fleeting the past several weeks. There's been too many bad habits forming, too much individual play.
"Sometimes you have to find a way to win games, and we're doing that," veteran defenseman Anton Stralman said. "But I don't think the way we're winning games is the way we want to do it. It's not going to be viable going into the playoffs. It's just not good enough."
Kunitz said not many Cup champs run the table from the start of the season. Even contenders go through difficult stretches. It's about peaking in March and April, not December and January.
This leaves the Lightning a couple months to find its more complete game. Or to make some necessary additions by the Feb. 26 trade deadline, whether it's a defenseman and/or bottom-six- center.
"We still have to get better and dictate the way the game is played and push the pace that the other team can't keep up to," Kunitz said. "We've got four good lines, and six, seven defensemen that can go out there and play. We believe in our goaltender, and he's kept us in most games this year.
"We've got to go out there and play that style and a pace that other teams can't keep up with and they almost have to give up when you're coming at them in waves. It's something we've got to come back to. That's what we, in the first 10, 20 games in the beginning of the year, we played the right way."