There was no sugarcoating the sting of Monday's 1-0 loss for the Lightning.
"We're allowed to be (ticked)," veteran Brian Boyle said. "We should be."
After all, the Lightning had — finally — put together a consistent 60-minute effort, arguably its best game of the season. It outshot the Panthers 39-19, season high and low for each stat, respectively.
But after another Aaron Ekblad last-minute point shot took a wacky bounce off defenseman Victor Hedman's skate, it soared over the shoulder of goalie Andrei Vasileskiy with 20 seconds left, sealing Tampa Bay's most crushing defeat.
"Just (stinks)," Vasilevskiy said. "(Stuff) happens. We played really well. But without goals, you can't win. That's it."
The Lightning (8-9-3) has lost nine of 12, and no one would have ever thought lack of scoring would be the culprit. Tampa Bay, which led the league in goals last season, has been held to one or fewer nine times, shut out in four games.
"I'd like to sit here and think that it all evens out in the end," coach Jon Cooper said. "It can't keep going like this forever."
The Lightning had found a way despite being shorthanded. Already without Ondrej Palat, three more regulars — Tyler Johnson, Cedric Paquette and Jonathan Drouin — were sidelined Monday. AHL callups Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden and defenseman Matt Taormina stepped in and played well.
The modified top line of Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov was dangerous all night. "We had a lot of pretty good looks," Stamkos said.
Stamkos said the team will actually take more positives out of this game, tying to keep from becoming too frustrated or deflated.
"There's no point in hanging our heads now, it's not going to do anything for us," Stamkos said. "We've got to keep working hard, keep getting better. Eventually, it's going to turn."
It won't get any easier, not with the Rangers, who have won nine-straight, coming to Amalie Arena Thursday, followed by the Ducks on Saturday. "We shouldn't get used to losing," Boyle said. "We can't really accept it."
The Lightning felt it deserved two points Saturday against the Panthers, with Ekblad's power-play point shot deflecting off Erik Condra into the net with 40 seconds left to force overtime.
"(Ekblad) should have someone buy a lottery ticket in the final minute," Cooper said. "It's starting to get like a broken record when I sit here and say, I felt like we deserved something out of this game and we got nothing."
The Lightning, the defending Eastern Conference champion, is realizing it'll take a very different and difficult journey if it wants to get back.
"That's why you play the games," Stamkos said. "That's why you can't listen to all the (stuff) about last year, and expectations, you've got to play the game. There's no trophies handed out before the season starts. That's hockey, that's life in general. Nothing is given to you, especially these teams, this league. We've got to earn everything we get."
Contact Joe Smith at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First—None. Penalties—Gudbranson, Fla (holding), 9:44; Filppula, TB (holding), 19:37.
Second—None. Penalties—Condra, TB, served by Blunden, double minor (roughing), 5:31; Kampfer, Fla (roughing), 5:31; Jokinen, Fla (hooking), 6:02; Howden, Fla (holding), 13:41.
Third—1, Florida, Bjugstad 7 (Ekblad, Huberdeau), 19:39. Penalties—Hedman, TB (tripping), 12:23. Shots—Tampa Bay 13-11-15—39. Florida 4-9-6—19. Power plays—Tampa Bay 0 of 3; Florida 0 of 3. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 2-2-0 (19 shots-18 saves). Florida, Luongo 6-6-2 (39-39). A—12,067 (19,250). T—2:26. Referees—Tom Kowal, Kelly Sutherland. Linesmen—Brian Mach, Matt MacPherson.