RALEIGH, N.C. — Lightning goaltender Mike Smith wanted to take the blame for Thursday night's 3-2 loss to the Hurricanes at the RBC Center.
His teammates and coach would not let him.
"There were 18 other guys playing who could have made a difference," center Jeff Halpern said.
But Smith was adamant after a second straight game in which he made a bad pass that led to a goal.
"If you want to be a big-time goalie in this league, you can't give the puck away like that," Smith said. "You can't let in goals like that. I just cost the team two points in the biggest game of the year. I'm sick to my stomach."
It was a big game.
Tampa Bay has to climb past its Southeast foe in the race for the East's final playoff spot, so Halpern rightly called the loss "huge" and coach Rick Tocchet called it a "heartbreaker," though that was more circumstantial.
Tampa Bay (17-22-10) lost its three-game winning streak and fell to 0-2-2 against Carolina when Eric Staal scored off a scramble in front of the net with 1:36 left in the third period to break a 2-2 tie.
Still, Tocchet said his team played an energetic game, featuring a goal and assist from Mark Recchi, who tied Doug Gilmour for 16th all time with 1,414 points and Frank Mahovlich for 29th with 533 goals.
Ryan Malone scored in the third to make it 2-2 after Steve Downie left the penalty box, stripped the puck from Ryan Whitney and pushed it the other way.
"We played a good game," Tocchet said. "Everybody played hard, including the goalie. He shouldn't take the blame."
But Smith could not get past his miscue that led to the Hurricanes' first short-handed goal of the season, tied the score 1-1 5:34 into the second period and altered the momentum.
The sequence ended with Chad LaRose's goal from in front of the net, but it began with Smith's pass to the boards and directly to Carolina's Matt Cullen.
"I looked up and saw two of their players and still threw it to the same side," Smith said. "All I had to do was shovel it behind the net. That hurts. Those mistakes cost you games."
There were others.
LaRose should not have been so open. Defenseman Lukas Krajicek's clearing try along the boards was held in the Lightning zone before Cullen scored on a wraparound with 1:24 left in the second period for a 2-1 lead.
And when Marty St. Louis lost control of the puck in the offensive zone, it sparked a Hurricanes breakout that ultimately led to the winning goal.
"So you can't blame Smitty," Tocchet said. "He's been great all year."