DALLAS — In the Lightning's recent alarming skid, it has found different ways to lose.
There was the clunker in Philadelphia.
There was the coming-out-flat in Toronto.
And Thursday, there was the third-period collapse in Dallas.
The Lightning blew three one-goal leads and got dominated in the final 20 minutes of a 4-3 loss to the Western Conference-leading Stars at American Airlines Center. Dallas outshot Tampa Bay 17-4 in the third and scored twice in the final 10 minutes to cap off the comeback, captain Jamie Benn's second goal the winner with about eight minutes to go.
It was Tampa Bay's fifth defeat in the past six games, making Saturday's game in Arizona seemingly a must-win.
"We're playing like a fragile team that's scared to lose and not hungry to close out a game," said captain Steven Stamkos, who had two goals. "We can't let that fear of losing creep in at this time of year."
The loss hurt in the standings. In the Atlantic Division, the Lightning, with 85 points, fell four points behind the first-place Panthers, who beat the Maple Leafs on Thursday. And it holds just a four-point lead on the Red Wings, also winners Thursday, for third in the division. The Lightning also is just five points ahead of the surging Flyers, who are in the ninth spot in the Eastern Conference but have two games in hand.
"We understand where we are at right now and how things are going," goalie Ben Bishop said. "It's about manning up now."
Said coach Jon Cooper: "Eleven games left (in the regular season). Got to start winning or we won't play much longer."
The Lightning (40-26-5) had struggled to score recently, partly due to it being too cute with its offense. But Thursday, Tampa Bay had a better shoot-first mentality, getting its goals in dirty areas.
Nikita Kucherov's goal in the first was the result of Andrej Sustr throwing the puck on net from the side boards, with Alex Killorn deflecting it with his stick. The puck bounced in off Kucherov to make it 1-0 midway through the first.
The Stars are the league's highest-scoring team for a reason, and they made the Lightning pay for a few mistakes. Jason Spezza tied the score at 1 a couple of minutes after Kucherov's goal on a 2-on-1, sparked by a bad pinch by Tampa Bay.
There was an encouraging moment for the Lightning's struggling power play, which entered in an 0-for-19 slump, Cooper quipping it had "really hit the desert." But Stamkos scored a power-play goal, the Lightning's first in nine games, pouncing on a rebound in his trademark left circle spot for a 2-1 lead in the second.
Benn answered, converting a turnover from Sustr in the middle of the Lightning zone into his 35th goal at 5:42 of the second. But Stamkos gave Tampa Bay the lead again late in the period after a tremendous shift — one of the best of the season — by him, Kucherov and Alex Killorn. It ended with Killorn sending Stamkos a great feed, making for a tap-in goal for Stamkos' 33rd of the season.
Bishop made some key saves but was ambushed in a third period that the Stars dominated.
"We just need to be smarter," Bishop said. "Too many sloppy plays. It's kind of inexcusable at this point."
The game featured several video tributes by the Lightning to former Stars captain Brenden Morrow, who played for Tampa Bay last season and retired a Star on Thursday. And in the end, Morrow's successor as Stars captain, Benn, fittingly put the Lightning away.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 26 (Killorn, Sustr), 12:15. 2, Dallas, Spezza 29 (Nichushkin), 14:09. Penalties—Blunden, TB (boarding), 6:42; Callahan, TB, major (fighting), 12:19; Roussel, Dal, major (fighting), 12:19.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 32 (Kucherov, Stralman), 3:15 (pp). 4, Dallas, Ja.Benn 35 (Eakin), 5:42. 5, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 33 (Killorn, Hedman), 17:19. Penalties—Nichushkin, Dal (holding), 1:39.
Third Period—6, Dallas, Johns 1 (Eakin, Ja.Benn), 9:42. 7, Dallas, Ja.Benn 36 (Eakin, Seguin), 11:50. Penalties—None. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 6-10-4—20. Dallas 7-9-17—33. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 1; Dallas 0 of 1. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Bishop 29-19-4 (33 shots-29 saves). Dallas, Lehtonen 20-9-2 (20-17).