TAMPA — Somehow, the words "Lightning" and "playoffs" got tangled up before this latest collapse.
That was before the Lightning blew a two-goal lead Saturday to the red-hot Panthers, who scored three unanswered goals to sneak out of town with a 4-3 win. The Lightning lost a chance to climb within eight points of the final playoff spot.
"It's a tough loss for us," coach Rick Tocchet said. "This was kind of our playoff game."
Tocchet began the day with optimistic talk in a season overshadowed by failure and doubt.
Consider the recent trade talk swirling around Vinny Lecavalier. Steven Stamkos, June's No. 1 overall draft pick, was a healthy scratch for the second time in just more than a week. And there's the seemingly endless rash of injuries.
Tocchet was asked after the morning skate if a playoff berth was still possible. Despite all the misfortunes, he said he believed so because roughly half of the season is left.
Tocchet hoped to grab the magic of Thursday's 4-1 win against the Flyers and ride it as far as he could. The ride conked out after the first 20 minutes Saturday.
Lecavalier, Marty St. Louis and Vinny Prospal had two points each as part of a promising first period that ended with a 3-1 lead. A deflection goal by Lecavalier followed by a Prospal power-play goal energized the announced St. Pete Times Forum crowd of 17,217.
Florida answered when Gregory Campbell caught Mike Smith sliding left and ripped the puck past his right side to make it 2-1.
Ryan Malone notched the 100th goal of his career 51 seconds later, collecting a rebound off of goalie Craig Anderson and knocking it in.
Tocchet's notion that the Lightning (14-21-10) still had a playoff pulse seemed to have caught on in the locker room.
"We had started the game great," Prospal said. "We didn't give them anything in the first period. In the second period, we gave them all the momentum."
Florida entered undefeated since a 4-2 loss to the Islanders on Dec. 31. After the first, it benched Anderson for Tomas Vokoun, who turned away all 22 shots he faced.
The Panthers revved up their offensive muscle with goals by Richard Zednik, Jay Bouwmeester and ex-Lightning Cory Stillman. Bouwmeester's goal registered as time expired in the second.
"You never want a goal at the end of the period," Lightning defenseman Steve Eminger said. "That was a tough one to swallow."
The Lightning is in the midst of a stretch in which nine of 12 games are at home. Tocchet hopes to use home-ice advantage to help snowball some kind of winning streak.
He realizes a loss here and there is inevitable, but the heavy bleeding must stop.
"You have to go game by game, and there is a little bit of a light," Tocchet said after the morning skate. "We've struggled all year, and we're starting to get our legs here.
"We just can't afford any more slumps."
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 19 (Smaby, Prospal), 4:37. 2, Tampa Bay, Prospal 10 (St. Louis, Lecavalier), 13:36 (pp). 3, Florida, Campbell 9 (Peltonen, Dvorak), 17:55. 4, Tampa Bay, Malone 13 (St. Louis, Meszaros), 18:46. Penalties—McCabe, Fla (holding), 2:25; Bouwmeester, Fla (hooking), 12:11; Horton, Fla (tripping), 14:44.
Second Period—5, Florida, Stillman 10 (Horton, Bouwmeester), 6:39 (pp). 6, Florida, Zednik 6 (Booth, Horton), 10:56. 7, Florida, Bouwmeester 10 (Stillman, Horton), 19:59 (pp). Penalties—Boynton, Fla (tripping), 2:08; Smaby, TB (hooking), 6:12; Artyukhin, TB (tripping), 19:33.
Third Period—None. Penalties—None. Shots on Goal—Florida 4-13-4—21. Tampa Bay 11-9-13—33. Power-play opportunities—Florida 2 of 2; Tampa Bay 1 of 4. Goalies—Florida, Anderson (11 shots-8 saves), Vokoun 12-12-2 (0:00 second, 22-22). Tampa Bay, Smith 11-16-9 (21-17). A—17,217 (19,758).