The Bruins remain atop the Northeast Division, a point up on Ottawa with five games in hand. They are also still second in the conference, trailing the Rangers by three points with a game in hand on them as well, and New York coming to Boston on Saturday.
The Bruins are on solid footing. But that doesn't mean they can afford to take nights off. That's what they did Tuesday in Tampa Bay, and the 5-3 loss to the last-place Lightning shows just how thin the margin for error is against any team in the NHL.
"We're just not competing hard enough right now," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "We can look anywhere we want, mistakes or battles or whatever. It's about compete level right now. Our guys are not competing as hard as they should, and because of that we're just an ordinary hockey club right now."
Calling the Bruins' efforts in recent games ordinary is being overly kind. They collapsed in the third period Saturday in Carolina to open their current trip, survived a sloppy game that included giving up four breakaways to the Panthers before escaping in a shootout on Monday, and now gave up five goals for the first time all season to a Tampa team that had yet to win in 2012.
"I think we know we can be better defensively," Bruins forward Daniel Paille said. "We're giving up three or four goals a game now the last few."
That's a far cry from the usually stingy defense the Bruins have been known for under Julien. The Bruins have dropped out of the top spot in team goals-against average at 2.02, falling behind both the Rangers and the St. Louis Blues, who are tied for the league lead at 1.98. The Bruins have now allowed four or more goals four times in the last nine games after not allowing more than three in any game between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.
"That's something that we take a lot of pride in," Paille said. "We've got to get back in that mentality. We had a good stretch and we've got to go back to a couple months ago where we felt pretty confident in ourselves and play like we did back then."
Tuesday's breakdowns weren't as blatant as the ones that produced the string of breakaways in Florida on Monday, but they were just as unacceptable. The Bruins played with a lack of focus and determination, left too many Lightning players free to roam unmolested in front and were sloppy taking care of the puck in their own zone.
Tim Thomas made a couple of highlight-reel saves, most notably sliding post-to-post to rob Teddy Purcell on a one-timer on a power play in the closing seconds of the second period and stopping a 3-on-1 that included Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in the third. But Thomas also let in a few goals he would like to have back, gave up some bad rebounds and contributed to one goal, when he handcuffed Joe Corvo with a pass in the corner that led to a turnover and a Ryan Malone tally.
"I don't know if it's been a few weeks, it's probably only been a few games," Thomas said of the club's recent struggles. "But if there was one thing you could put a finger on it would be easy to fix. It's not. It's a whole bunch of little things adding up and combining together."
Most of those little things stem from a lack of effort, as the Bruins have been regularly outworked and outhustled throughout this road trip.
"They came out hungry tonight and it showed from the first period," Paille said of the Lightning, who snapped a seven-game losing streak. "The whole game we were trying to catch up to them in scoring. They fought hard. Their second and third lines played really well. We've got to be better 5 on 5. Right now we're slacking on there and it's got to improve."
Paille provided a spark with a shorthanded goal on a breakaway to tie the game at 3-3, while Nathan Horton responded to some pointed criticism from Julien with a two-goal night. But there weren't enough other Bruins providing a sustained effort to give the Bruins a chance to win this one.
"We need to compete a lot harder than we have," Julien said. "If we do that a lot of things are going to fall into place. Right now we're not and obviously tonight was one of those situations where we certainly weren't going to get the breaks, and the last two penalties called on us were certainly disappointing.
"We have to look at ourselves," Julien added. "But certainly it was disappointing in a lot of the decision-making out there tonight."