TAMPA — The Lightning had Monday's game in its grasp.
Having rallied to take a one-goal lead with just under seven minutes to go, all Tampa Bay had to do was hold on at home and pull within just two points of Atlantic Division rival Montreal.
"We have to win that," GM Steve Yzerman said.
The Lightning (18-15-4) didn't, losing 4-3 in a shootout as Montreal took over first place and increased its lead over Tampa Bay to five points. "We gave two points away," captain Steven Stamkos said.
It's something the Lightning has done often this season, the fourth time it has lost a game after having a lead with 10 minutes to go. Three have come against Eastern Conference teams ahead of the Lightning in the standings. If Tampa Bay, still out of playoff position, misses the postseason, those will be those games it likely laments the most.
"We still have the belief from the guys we can turn it around — there's no doubt," veteran center Brian Boyle said. "But there needs to be a little bit of fear. Needs to be a little bit of, 'We're on the outside looking in here.' We need to understand to get our stuff together.
"Urgency is a great way to put it. We have to have that fear of failure, should have that will to succeed. We're too good to be where we are. But we need to understand, it's not going to get any easier."
That includes tonight's game against the reeling Rangers (20-13-4) at Amalie Arena. After racking up just five combined points in the first four games of this homestand, letting Montreal snap a six-game losing streak, Tampa Bay can ill afford to slip up here, not with New York going 0-6-2 in its last eight road games and 4-10-2 in its last 16 overall. Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist has been pulled in four of its last 12 starts, with coach Alain Vigneault said they "don't have enough guys bringing it."
It's time for Tampa Bay to bring it, for 60 minutes.
"We're treating it as we're in the playoffs right now," Yzerman said. "This is our playoffs. It started a lot earlier than we anticipated. There's an emotional roller-coaster with it. When you lose, there's a sense of 'Oh my God,' and the excitement of winning isn't as big as the frustration and disappointment in a loss. But you keep going from game to game and figure out a way to keep clawing back."
The Lightning is getting healthier, with wing Jonathan Drouin off injured reserve and ready to return tonight (Yanni Gourde was reassigned to AHL Syracuse. All-Star center Tyler Johnson came back Monday after missing seven games. Johnson said his right wrist — broken during the Stanley Cup final — is "100 times better" than at the start of the season, when it still impacted his game.
"It feels like my old wrist," Johnson said.
But the Lightning has to get back to its old ways, as in last season, when it rarely squandered late leads. Part of the issue this season has been struggling special teams, like allowing three power play goals in a 5-3 collapse in Washington on Nov. 28. The Lightning also had a power play with five minutes left in a tied game Monday, but came up empty. There's also been "bad luck," as Yzerman put it, a point shot by Florida's Aaron Ekblad taking a fortuitous bounce in the final minute of a 5-4 Tampa Bay shootout loss Nov. 14.
But Boyle notes there have been too many times the Lightning comes out of its structure (like Nashville forward James Neal's tying goal late in a 5-4 shootout victory Oct. 20). Yzerman believes in this team, and that it can get on a hot streak to make this an "exciting second half."
"We know what we're capable of," Boyle said. "We can't just expect to lace our skates up and have it happen. So many games last year, we earned it. We earned respect and earned everything we've got. It's certainly not going to be handed to us this year."
It would help if Tampa Bay didn't hand opponents any more points, either.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.