Video: Stars struggle against Lightning
1. If only for those darn goals
If you put some tape over the actual score of this game and just watched the level of play, the ebbs and flows and the effort -- at least through the first two periods -- you could make a case that Dallas probably deserved better than to be whipped 6-1.
They hung tough through a mistake-plagued first period still scoreless, and then cut down on those errors and forced Tampa onto its heels and into a handful of penalties in the second, actually out-shooting the Lightning 15-8 in the second.
But it still wasn't nearly enough.
Why? Because the gap between Tampa and Dallas on critical levels is significant.
A late first-period turnover led to a Greg Pateryn hooking penalty, and Steven Stamkos made the Stars pay 47 seconds into the second.
Then, just 1:17 after Radek Faksa tied the game, the Bolts struck again, keeping the puck in the Dallas zone, allowing Mikhail Sergachev to beat Ben Bishop with a long screen shot. Then, with the Stars heading onto their second power play of the period, John Klingberg botched a simple retrieval play behind his net and Brayden Point put the Bolts up two with a shorthanded goal.
And that was pretty much that as the Bolts cruised through the third period, scoring three more goals.
Critical goals scored at critical times by players from up and down the Tampa lineup. Sounds like textbook hockey. Sounds like the kind of hockey that is pretty much eluding the Dallas Stars.
"This was probably the biggest disappointment of a game, probably so far this year," said captain Jamie Benn. "We're going to have to look at ourselves in the mirror and then come back ready to put some work in tomorrow. We're far away from being an elite-level (team) like Tampa is right now.
"We've got to put the work in and try and keep getting better."
Video: Bishop on return game in Tampa
2. Ben's not-so-happy return
No one will be more happy to see the end of 'welcome home, Ben' discussion than Dallas netminder Ben Bishop, who was feted by fans and former teammates in words and video during the Stars' two days in Tampa.
As it should have been given Bishop's importance to the franchise and the importance of the franchise to his own career.
And especially in the first period when the Stars were bumbling around, and allowing 13 first-period shots, Bishop was terrific.
Sure, he could have hustled back to his net after leaving the puck for Klingberg on the shorthanded goal, but that's all on Klingberg, really. But he should have had the Bolts' fifth goal, a long-range shot by Jake Dotchin that did not appear to come through traffic.
The bottom line is that he allowed 11 goals in two starts on this road trip and has allowed at least three goals in four of his last five starts, seeing his save percentage drop below .900 to a pedestrian .899.
"Obviously, we're very disappointed right now," said Bishop, who allowed six goals on 28 shots Thursday. "We got to look in the mirror here quick and figure it out, because this isn't good enough. It starts with me in net. We've all got to be better here and we've got to find ways to get wins. Doesn't matter how you get wins we just got to find a way."
So all in all, a bittersweet homecoming for Bishop -- heavy on the bitter. But, as head coach Ken Hitchcock noted, it's time to move on.
"It's like anything else, you get to move on after the first game," Hitchcock said prior to the game. "There's a lot of emotions, a lot of conflict that goes through your mind at that time. But I think he's going to be fine with it."
Video: Klingberg on disappointing game in Tampa
3. Klingberg's follies
The Stars played this three-game road trip without veteran defenseman Marc Methot, who has been nursing a lower-body injury, but is hopeful of playing Saturday afternoon at home against the Edmonton Oilers.
In his absence, it's been instructive to watch Methot's sometimes defensive partner John Klingberg navigate the road path during these games, and at times, it's been a bit of a horror show.
Klingberg was minus-3 in the 5-1 loss to Carolina that started the trip on Monday night in Raleigh. The smooth-skating offensive star was much better in a shootout loss to Florida the next night, and while he was much steadier Thursday, his blunder on the critical shorthanded goal cannot be ignored.
If Klingberg, who entered the night leading all defensemen with 18 points, wants to be considered an elite defender a-la his countryman Victor Hedman, who has become one of the game's best for the Lightning, these are moments he can't have.
Everyone makes mistakes -- the best players don't make mistakes that kill their teams' chances of winning, and that mistake was a killer.
"The third goal killed us," Hitchcock said. "Played a great second period. Managed the first period. The third goal really took the momentum out of us. And then seemed like every mistake when in our net, but the third goal really hurt us."
Was it unfortunate that it was a leader who made such a critical mistake?
"Whatever," the coach said. "That's the goal that took the momentum away and swung it the other way."
Klingberg said he knew that he was being hounded by Point and simply lost the puck.
"I know he's coming there. I'm trying to wheel the net, and I just missed the puck," he said. "It's disappointing. It's nothing I'm going to worry about now. I mean, the game is over. I can't think about it too much right now. Nothing's going to change just have to move on."
Video: DAL@TBL: Faksa steals puck, bags breakaway goal
4. Discouragement factor
The NHL schedule is relentless. You don't get much time to lick your wounds, and the Stars are definitely wounded coming off a trip that saw them outscored 14-5 (we don't count the shootout goal against Florida).
Saturday afternoon, the Stars will entertain Edmonton a team that beat them 5-4 in an earlier visit to Edmonton, then they play back-to-back at home against Montreal on Tuesday and in Colorado on Wednesday.
Hitchcock said before Thursday's blowout that he's been impressed at his players' willingness to look in the mirror. Well, there'll be plenty of reasons for self-appraisal after this trip, but not much time in which to do it.
Given that, does discouragement become a factor for a team now 9-9-1 (3-7-1 away from American Airlines Center), and looking, somehow, far less imposing than most had imagined they would at this point? It took the Stars longer than normal to open the locker room, so it's clear we're at a critical juncture here.
"It's between just this group in here, and I think it's pretty obvious it was a piss-poor effort out there tonight," Benn said when we asked about the closed-door session. "We hung our goalie out to dry in his big return to his old team. Just more embarrassing hockey."
Video: DAL@TBL: Bishop fights off Johnson's quick wrister
5. Work ahead
So, what now? Well, the focus will be on keeping the puck out of the Dallas net -- something that didn't happen nearly enough on this trip.
It starts with the goaltending -- as Bishop rightfully pointed out -- but this is a team that isn't playing nearly to the level that most people imagined they would given the coaching and personnel.
"I think we are what we are right now," Hitchcock said. "We have a chance to get better. We can live in the dream world that it's unfair, but we are what we are. We're giving up way too many goals. You can't do that. You can't play this way and be successful.
"That's the base that we have to start from. We've got to start keeping it out of our net. We've got to do better job defensively. We've got to get better across the board defensively, and then let's start from there. The goals, to me, will take care of themselves. But not if we're going to continue to play as porous as we are at critical times defensively."
The Stars are now allowing three goals per game, tied for 16th in the league. And, as Klingberg pointed out, the team talked specifically about defending the Lightning's big line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov, and all they did was light the Stars up for three goals and eight points.
"This is not good enough," Klingberg said. "This is not good enough at all. I mean, it's a 3-1 game. We have all the chances to get back in the game, but we just give them more chances, and we give that top line -- which we talked about before the game -- and now we give up those chances, and they just bury the game. Which was really bad.
"Really bad for Bishop, coming back to Tampa. We just leave him out there hanging dry."
This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB, and listen to his Burnside Chats podcast here.