TAMPA — Dazed and a little confused.
That just about summed up the feelings in a quiet Lightning locker room Thursday night after a crushing 3-2 loss to the Panthers at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Dazed because Tampa Bay could not protect a 2-1 lead with less than 12 minutes left.
Confused because it could not summon the same effort used two days earlier to beat the Capitals and that it lost to an opponent it must hold off in the Southeast in the battle for a playoff spot.
It also is the third time this month Tampa Bay (18-18-10) fell to .500 after climbing above it the game before.
"We wanted to get the ball rolling," defenseman Kurtis Foster said. "We played in our 46th game. We're on the downswing now toward 82. You've got to get on a roll if you're going to challenge for that playoff spot.
"It's very disappointing."
On a lot of levels, but in particular because the Panthers' third-period goals came off blunders by highly regarded rookie defenseman Victor Hedman and Marty St. Louis failed on a penalty shot with 4:55 left in the game and the Lightning down by one.
"I'll think about that one," said St. Louis, whose 11-game points streak ended.
All that after a good beginning as Jeff Halpern scored his ninth goal in the first and Steve Downie his 10th for a 2-1 lead.
But former Lightning wing Cory Stillman scored 8:53 into the third at the end of a two-on-one created when Hedman pinched into the offensive zone and left his position open without help behind him. And Rastislav Olesz got the winner past Antero Niittymaki with 7:39 left after pick-pocketing Hedman of the puck in the neutral zone.
"It wasn't a good play by me," Hedman said. "I have to be more careful there."
And he has to be more aware of who is or isn't behind him when he pinches.
"When we're up 2-1 there, I don't want him pinching," coach Rick Tocchet said. "He's got to read that. Any time you're up, even when you're tied, you have to be 100 percent sure when you pinch. You've got to live with some mistakes from the young kid, but he's still going to be a hell of a defenseman."
And St. Louis is a hell of a player, but his penalty shot went right into Tomas Vokoun's glove.
"I wasn't happy with the result and with the shot that I took," St. Louis said. "It's a pressure situation. You want to be in those situations. Just couldn't get it done there. That was a big chance."
Much like the chance the Lightning had Thursday to start a real move toward the playoffs.
"I just wish we had some more inspired play from some guys," Tocchet said.
Talk about confusing.
First Period—1, Florida, Horton 16 (Weiss, Frolik), 5:58. 2, Tampa Bay, Halpern 9 (Lecavalier, Tanguay), 9:40. 3, Tampa Bay, Downie 10 (Malone, Szczechura), 12:40. Penalties—MacIntyre, Fla (high-sticking), 13:13; Meszaros, TB (slashing), 14:47.
Second Period—None. Penalties—Weiss, Fla (holding, roughing), 2:30; Downie, TB, double minor (roughing), 2:30.
Third Period—4, Florida, Stillman 7 (Reinprecht, Dvorak), 8:53. 5, Florida, Olesz 11, 12:21. Penalties—Lundin, TB (hooking), 14:26. Missed Penalty Shot—St. Louis, TB, 15:05 third. Shots on Goal—Florida 6-10-13—29. Tampa Bay 14-7-9—30. Power-play opportunities—Florida 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 0 of 1. Goalies—Florida, Vokoun 14-14-8 (30 shots-28 saves). Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 8-7-4 (29-26). A—13,516 (19,758).