It would be understandable if the Ducks were losing close games during these post-All Star, pre-playoff dog days of the NHL season.
But after producing another sloppy, inconsistent effort Wednesday in a 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning — the Ducks' fifth loss in six games and seventh in their last 10 — it's clear they're experiencing something worse than a lapse in concentration or lack of interest after building a big lead in the Pacific Division.
“This is not how we want to be playing right now,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said after the Lightning scored all four goals in the second period. “This isn't a case of other teams coming in and beating us. We think when we're playing the right way, when we're playing our style, nobody is going to beat us. We're not there right now. We need to get better.”
A lot better. And at least, they know it.
“We're not sitting there thinking, ‘We played a pretty good game, why didn't we win?' That's not the case,” Lovejoy said. “We know how we played. We're not proud of it.”
Their play was slipping before they lost Sami Vatanen to a leg injury and productive left wing Matt Beleskey to a shoulder injury this week. It didn't help Wednesday that defenseman Hampus Lindholm was scratched — he apparently aggravated an injury that kept him out of a game last week — but no one stepped up to fill those voids.
In fact, they stepped back in ugly unison.
They had a good start Wednesday, led by left wing Patrick Maroon's forceful, physical effort. He also scored his first goal in nine games, planting himself by the right post and jamming a rebound past Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop at 4:17 of the first period.
Everything looked good for the Ducks. “I thought our first period was probably one of the best periods we've had all season,” Corey Perry said. “We were physical, we were fast, we were moving the puck. And we were shooting. Those things are a part of what this team is all about and that's how we have to play.”
And then they stopped playing that way, mesmerized by the Lightning's speed. As Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau noted, his defensemen had few hits — one by Francois Beauchemin and one by Josh Manson — because they couldn't catch opponents to get a body on them.
“The first period was the way we wanted to play tonight,” Perry said. “I don't know what happened in the second.”
Tampa Bay controlled the pace and the puck in the middle period while outshooting the Ducks, 20-5, and scoring in two-goal clusters early and late in the period. The Ducks have given up at least four goals in four of their last five games, a losing formula for a team that insists it can't get caught up in a track meet but too often does.
“We relaxed,” Lovejoy said. “We didn't play nearly as well. We had far too many turnovers. We couldn't get the puck out of our zone.”
Tampa Bay pulled even at 4:31, when Anton Stralman, in the left circle, deflected a shot by Brian Boyle past Gibson. The Lightning took the lead after an intended clearing pass by Ryan Getzlaf was held in the zone and led to a shot by Jason Garrison. Gibson stopped that, but the rebound went to Ondrej Palat, who fed Tyler Johnson in front.
Moments after Ducks winger Rene Bourque shot high on a breakaway, the Lightning expanded its lead to 3-1. Stralman's shot from the right point appeared to glance off Beauchemin and Cam Fowler, creating chaos in front. Gibson tried to push the puck under his leg to get a stoppage, but Fowler jabbed his stick beneath Gibson's right pad and the puck went in, a goal credited to Nikita Kucherov.
Steven Stamkos triggered a shower of boos from fans at Honda Center when he took a cross-ice pass from Alex Killorn and rifled a shot past Gibson from the left circle at 19:39. The Ducks gave fans few reasons to cheer in the third period.
“We know we're a good team. When we play at our best level, no one can beat us in this league,” Maroon said. “When we play very strong hockey we're big and physical, and we're getting away from that right now.”
Too far away for their comfort.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen