TAMPA — The Lightning insists it doesn't pay much attention to the standings, even this late in the season, other than making sure it is in a playoff spot.
But Saturday's first-place divisional showdown with the Panthers needed little research.
"I knew what we were playing for," coach Jon Cooper said.
If the Lightning has hopes for an Atlantic Division title, those took a hit in a 5-2 loss in front of a sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena. It fell two points behind Florida, which took over first in the division, with seven games to play.
With the season series over, Tampa Bay dropped four of the teams' five meetings. There is potential for the two to meet in the playoffs for the first time.
"As a competitor myself, you really want to play against them (in the playoffs) because they're a good team and they've had our number through the season," said center Tyler Johnson, who scored for the second straight game. "So it'd be nice for us to meet up when it really matters."
The Lightning (43-26-5) has to get there first. It is sitting in a somewhat comfortable position in the top three in the Atlantic, in a playoff spot and six points ahead of fourth-place Detroit, which lost at home to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
But the third-place Bruins, also a potential first-round opponent, pulled within three points of second (and home-ice advantage).
Considering Tampa Bay was playing on the end of back-to-back games and missing four key injured regulars (defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Nikita Kucherov, Ryan Callahan and Valtteri Filppula), it was encouraged by a strong start, controlling play for much of the first period.
But Tampa Bay ended up behind 2-1 after 20 minutes, a power-play goal by the ageless Jaromir Jagr, 44, late in the period giving the Panthers the lead for good.
"I can sit here and pick apart our team all night long, but I don't think they deserve it," Cooper said. "Played well, played hard. They fought. We couldn't find the back of the net.
"There's a reason (the Panthers are) in first place. They've got a good team. If we bang home a few more early, who knows (how) the score turns out."
In a penalty-plagued game — each team had six power plays — the Panthers got better goaltending. Roberto Luongo made 33 saves, many point-blank. Andrei Vasilevskiy, making his first start in 11 days and just his third this month, gave up four goals on 26 shots. He has lost three straight starts after winning nine of 10.
"I have a good run months ago, a couple wins in a row. I played a lot and felt great," Vasilevskiy said. "Now when it gets closer to the playoffs, I play one, two games a month. I know it's some excuses, but for a goalie, it's important to play a lot and get some confidence."
The Lightning has allowed four goals or more in four of its past six games, and its path won't get easier with Stralman out for the rest of the regular season and beyond. Though it has won two of the first three games on this six-game homestand, it hasn't clinched a playoff spot, much less the division.
Said center Brian Boyle: "We can't let it linger."
First—1, TB, Johnson 14 (Nesterov, Palat), 5:52 (pp). 2, Fla, Trocheck 25 (Jokinen), 13:36. 3, Fla, Jagr 25 (Barkov, Huberdeau), 18:02 (pp). Penalties—Campbell, Fla (delay of game), 5:25; Hudler, Fla (holding stick), 8:57; Stamkos, TB (high-sticking), 16:33.
Second—4, Fla, Hudler 15 (Petrovic, Bjugstad), 15:53. Penalties—Stamkos, TB (interference), 7:56; Boyle, TB (kneeing), 10:38; Ekblad, Fla (closing hand on puck), 13:01; Sustr, TB (hooking), 17:47.
Third—5, Fla, Huberdeau 15 (Barkov, Jagr), 4:02. 6, TB, Stamkos 36 (Boyle, Nesterov), 16:48 (pp). 7, Fla, Jokinen 17, 19:35 (en-sh). Penalties—Kampfer, Fla (tripping), 11:27; Condra, TB (embellishment), 11:27; Huberdeau, Fla (tripping), 15:50; Kampfer, Fla (holding), 18:14. SOG—Fla 11-10-6—27. TB 12-12-11—35. PPs—Fla 1 of 4; TB 2 of 5. Goalies—Fla, Luongo 32-18-6 (35 shots-33 saves). TB, Vasilevskiy 11-8-0 (26-22). A—19,092 (19,092). T—2:28. Referees—Gord Dwyer, Chris Rooney. Linesmen—Matt MacPherson, Jonny Murray.