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Ducks-Lightning showdown has extra importance after slow starts for both

The urgency of Wednesday's showdown is clear to Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and his Anaheim counterpart, Ryan Getzlaf. USA TODAY Sports

As the Anaheim Ducks prepare to host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, the look-in-the-mirror aspect of the contest isn't lost on either captain.

"I don't think it's gone as planned for both teams," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said Tuesday evening.

Both popular preseason picks to go all the way, neither team has met expectations just yet.

"They're a great team,'' Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said Tuesday morning, his team having lost 5-0 in Tampa back on Nov. 21.

"The one thing I do know is that when you go to the playoffs and you play late into them, it's not always easy to get going the next year and it's a lot of hockey," Getzlaf said of the Lightning, a Stanley Cup finalist last season. "If you've played a lot of hockey, the following year could be a tough start. But I think, much like us, I think they'll be there at the end of the year, they'll be in the playoffs and they're going to be a tough team to contend with. It'll be a good test for us Wednesday night.''

The Ducks are four points out of a playoff spot in the West; the Lightning are two points out in the East. It's not where either team should be.

"Here we are 25 games in, we keep saying we'll come out of it, but we're still a .500 team right now entering this California road trip, where there's not much room left for error," said Stamkos of his 11-11-3 club. "There's not as much hockey left as you think.''

There's a sense of urgency on each side. The Lightning won three straight from Nov. 19-25 but then dropped a pair of games last weekend.

The Ducks played perhaps their most complete game of the season Monday while trouncing the Vancouver Canucks 4-0. It came on the heels of a pretty good effort against the Chicago Blackhawks on Black Friday, one in which Anaheim coughed up a late 2-0 lead and lost 3-2 in overtime.

It's hard to fathom either of these talented clubs not being in the playoffs by April, but we've also been saying for two months that their slow starts are hard to fathom.

One explanation: Contending teams that fall just short the previous season try to resume their form the following season. For Tampa, that's the Cup finals; for Anaheim, it's Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

It doesn't always work that way, of course. One season doesn't simply flow into the other. Teams have to re-engineer their identity and chemistry and earn their way back.

That's a lesson both the Lightning and the Ducks are learning the hard way.

"Absolutely, I agree," said Stamkos, 25. "I've been in that position too, where you've been to the conference finals, we're one goal away from going to the finals, and the next couple of years we're not even sniffing the playoffs. I've been on that end before, and it's not fun. The good teams, the consistent teams, you look around the league, they seem to find a way to get there every year. That's what this league is about, consistently just giving yourself a chance to be in the playoffs."

"I know the expectation when you get to a final is, 'Let's get right back there and win it,''' added Stamkos. "Well, if it were that easy, every team would do that, that went to the final and lost. And it's only happened once in the last however many years.''

Echoed Getzlaf: "It's hard to restart the year and get your mindset back where you have to earn everything again. When you get that close, you think you should just be back there, and you want to compete for that Stanley Cup. But you have to remember the whole process and the whole year just to get there. Everything restarts, and you have to earn your respect again and earn your victories.''

In the meantime, the subpar performances have tested everyone involved. There are meetings and tension. Everyone's seeking answers.

"You can only say so much, you can only have so many meetings before it becomes redundant and you're saying the same things over and over again," said Getzlaf, 30. "And I've really only had maybe two times where I've actually said something in the room this year. Part of that comes with the fact that I don't think I was playing the best hockey that I could at the start of this year.

"The one thing I've learned is that if you're not doing it, then you can't harp on other guys to do it. I didn't feel my game was where it needed to be for me to stand up and call somebody out. I had to take care of my own self and my own game first and the other stuff follows after that.''

For Stamkos, who leads the Lightning with 11 goals and 19 points, the shocker for him (just like the rest of us) is the team's 24th-ranked offense.

"Well, absolutely," he said. "Ever since I've been with the Tampa Bay Lightning, scoring has never been an issue for our team going back seven, eight years now. Last year, we were the highest-scoring team in the league. For whatever reason, we have had some key guys out, and teams aren't going to be surprised by us anymore, or teams [are] doing extra homework against us because of the success we had last year.''

As Stamkos said, they've focused a lot over the last few years on being a better defensive team, and even this season they're fifth in goals against per game at 2.24. So that part is good.

"We saw how successful we can be last year in the playoffs when we take care of both ends of the ice," said Stamkos. "It's just that sometimes you take for granted the things that came naturally for our team and that was generating offense. It's something we have to get back to doing the basics things. Not just expecting it, but going out there and doing it. This trip is going to be a big test for us in that regard.''

After Anaheim, the Bolts play Saturday at San Jose and Sunday at Los Angeles.

For both teams, the adversity they've faced may serve them well as long as they get into the playoffs. This kind of thing tends to fortify a group, thicken one's skin.

"At the end of the day, when you go through hard times and you learn how to deal with them, you learn how to fight through certain things, those things are good when you get down the stretch and you come faced with something that doesn't go your way," agreed Getzlaf. "Or you have to grind out a few wins late. So yeah, it all helps down the road as long as you learn from it and you don't dwell on it.''

But now is the time to act.

"We just can't expect anything in this league," said Stamkos. "I think we're really finding that out right now. To our credit as a team, we've played a lot better recently even though we haven't got the results. Where does that question stop being asked with us playing well but not getting the points? We have to find a way to get those points now.''

What's clear is that both captains have the same idea about the playoffs for this season: Just get in and forget what seed you are because seeding doesn't matter anymore in this parity-filled league.

"It's just a matter of getting in and going from there," said Getzlaf. "It's going to be a grind throughout the whole year, I think, when you talk about how far we put ourselves back. But if you look at the standings right now, we're still in it.''

Said Stamkos: "It doesn't matter anymore if you're the first-ranked team or the eighth-ranked team. It really doesn't matter. You just have to give yourself a chance to make it into the playoffs.''

The captains have spoken. They know what's at stake, and now it's go time.