The Tampa Bay Lightning were coming off a rousing 6-3 home victory Saturday against their heated state and division rival, the first-place Florida Panthers.
It was a game that featured a Martin St. Louis hat trick to mark his landmark 900th career NHL game, Steven Stamkos’ league-leading 34th goal and another important step forward for the Bolts on the comeback trail.
What better way to skate into the finale of a four-game home stand against the defensively tough but low-scoring Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night?
What better way to generate momentum for a road swing against the first-place New York Rangers, the Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins?
Unfortunately, it turned out the Lightning still need to get much better — especially on the power play.
That’s what proved most costly to the Bolts in their 3-1 loss to the Kings, causing them to stumble back off the pace just as they were starting to roll.
An 0-for-3 effort in power-play opportunities with only two shots on goal to show for it became their undoing in a game that they needed to win — and could have won.
The inability to capitalize on power plays this season has been a frequent problem, including a drought that has seen the team convert only six of its past 63 attempts.
That sorry state of affairs was particularly evident Tuesday night after Stamkos extended his goals lead with his 35th goal to mark his 22nd birthday, tying the score 1-1 7:49 into the second period. Less than 20 seconds later, the Lightning earned a man advantage after a roughing call against LA wing Kyle Clifford.
The worst part wasn’t that the Bolts didn’t even muster a shot on goal during the penalty. It was that they lost sight of Clifford was he raced out of the box. Perhaps they were distracted by the familiar blast of the scoring buzzer that went off prematurely when Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman directed a shot at the side of the net — momentarily appearing to be a score.
Whatever the case, Clifford slipped by them, took a pass on the fly and beat Tampa Bay goalkeeper Dwayne Roloson with a one-on-one backhand shot. Just like that, the Kings were back on top 2-1 and the Bolts were left to wonder what happened.
That changed the entire complexion of the game, and Los Angeles made it 3-1 before the period ended. The Lightning had a chance to get back into the game with a pair of power plays in the opening eight minutes of the third period. Once again, however, the offense came away empty-handed. And so did the team, which fell nine points behind division-leading Washington by watching its 6-0-1 points streak come to an end.
“We have to be aware of the guy coming out of the box — period,” head coach Guy Boucher said. “We know the guy’s coming out the box, the timing’s there. Obviously, Hedman almost scored on his backhand there, thought it was going in. I guess everyone was focused on that, and we didn’t pay attention to the guy coming out of the box. He got the puck on his stick at the right time. We didn’t make many mistakes tonight, but it seemed like almost every one we made cost us.”
Team captain Vinny Lecavalier refused to use the erroneous horn-blowing as an excuse on the pivotal play. “We knew it wasn’t in, so the horn didn’t really do anything,” he said. “I guess we got to know that guys are coming out of the box. We got caught. We made a few defensive mistakes tonight, but we had a lot of good opportunities that we could have scored more goals.”
History suggested the Lightning could handle Los Angeles, second in the Pacific Division at 25-18-10 coming into the game. Tampa Bay’s last home regulation loss to the Kings fell on Oct. 7, 1999.
But LA has been allowing just more than two goals per game this season and is now 14-0-1 when it scores three or more goals.
The Lightning, meanwhile, now stand at 23-24-5 with 51 points — trailing the Caps, Florida and Winnipeg in the Southeast Division.
The task of making up ground won’t be easy — especially trying to regenerate their recent momentum on the road.
Perhaps the players can draw some solace and confidence from their recent streak of success. Before Tuesday, they hadn’t lost in regulation since Jan. 15 against Pittsburgh — and the loss to the Kings marked only the second time in their past 12 games that they scored fewer than two goals.
In addition, they rose to the occasion the last time they hit the road, knocking off Dallas and Phoenix back to back.
And at least Stamkos remains on a torrid pace, now having scored against every other team in the NHL this season.
The next seven games — the three on the road, followed by a four-game home stretch — could go a long way in determining whether the Bolts actually can climb back into the running.
But they can’t let games like the one Tuesday night continue to get away. And they’ve got to find a way to put some power back in their power play.