TAMPA - Gentlemen, start your offers.
Whatever bastion of hope, whatever thin strand of thread and whatever aspirations have been discussed, grim reality might finally have set in Tuesday night.
The Lightning stubbed their collective skate blade in the first game back from the All-Star break, dropping a 4-2 decision to a Buffalo team that had two wins in its previous 14 games and had scored two or fewer goals in 11 of its past 13.
The loss was Tampa Bay's second in a row on the heels of a three-game winning streak and marked the first back-to-back regulation losses since a four-game losing streak Dec. 22-29. The Lightning sit nine points behind division-leading Carolina and nine points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 31 games remaining.
And while Lightning general manager Jay Feaster hasn't said publicly that he is ready to announce he is selling off whatever pieces another team is willing to buy, his actions say a decision has been made.
Last week, some high-level scouts and management personnel were in the press box taking notes - including Dallas co-general manager Brett Hull. Phoenix director of player personnel Tom Kurvers was in the building Tuesday for the second game in a row, while pro scouts from the New York Rangers and Ottawa, which doesn't play Tampa Bay again this season, were in attendance.
Feaster, meanwhile, spent last week in western Canada getting an up-close look at Tampa Bay's top prospects, as well as those who will be in the upcoming draft at the Top Prospects game in Edmonton.
"We keep wishing and hoping and wanting, but the fact of the matter is, at some point we simply need to be a realist," Feaster said Tuesday. "And when you look at where we are, this is the kind of situation that if it stays this way, this draft is incredibly important. So I wanted to be able to get out and see these guys myself."
Feaster couldn't have liked what he saw in his first game since his road trip. Though the Lightning came out with the energy and desperation level of a team looking to get back into the playoff race, it looked like a familiar formula.
Tampa Bay presses the attack, fails to capitalize and finds itself down early after a breakdown after Brad Lukowich tried to deliver a hit at his own blue line. The attempt took out teammate Brad Richards just before Jochen Hecht delivered the puck to Jason Pominville, setting up a 2-on-1 break that Clarke MacArthur converted 4:58 into the game.
Pominville made it 2-0 as the trailer on a play at 12:14 with a wrist shot that beat Johan Holmqvist, who stopped 22 shots while making his fifth consecutive start.
"Two breakdowns by us and it's 2-0," said Richards, who scored Tampa Bay's first goal on a power play late in the second after Buffalo built a 4-0 lead. "We got back to doing what we did after that. I don't think we gave up."
And that might be the key during the final two-plus months of the season, not giving in to a reality that may have finally become crystal clear after their 26th loss - that the playoffs are not in the cards this season.
That's a reality Tampa Bay has not known since it missed out on the postseason during the 2001-02 season.
"We're professionals and this is our job, and it's a very good job, we have a lot of pride," Richards said. "We have to keep coming to work every day, and if we don't have everybody ready to do that like we should, then we don't have the right people in here. We are all accountable."
It appears that pride will be the only thing the Lightning have to play for in the closing games this season, and many players will likely be on edge as the Feb. 26 trade deadline looms.
"You have to be a realist," Feaster said. "I thought we were poised to do something after we got a win again against Edmonton last Tuesday, then we come out and the Ottawa game Thursday. ... I'm not going to beat a dead horse, but if this hockey team, and we were working hard again tonight, but we are not getting the saves, and if that's what we are going to be, we are not going to be able to stay in it. With Carolina winning tonight, these are desperate times, so we have to be planning on all contingencies right now."
Sounds like that contingency plan has already been put into motion.