TAMPA — With four losses in five games and defensive breakdowns at the heart of Tuesday's 4-2 loss to San Jose, Lightning coach Jon Cooper has a new urgency facing his team: The prospect of missing the playoffs entirely.
"Going back to the old adage that it's not how many you score, it's how many you keep out, we're not there at all right now," Cooper said after the Lightning defense gave up two goals in the third period after rallying to tie it in the second at Amalie Arena.
Tampa Bay (30-22-4) finds itself on the outside looking in, tied for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with Pittsburgh, which has a game in hand.
"These points are important, and we let them slip through," Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said. "Luckily other teams are losing as well, so we're not falling too far behind. We'll probably wake up (today) not being in the playoffs. We've got 26 games left and they're all going to be important … It's gut-check time."
So while the Lightning got goals from two players mired in long scoring droughts — Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette scored their first goals of the calendar year, ending streaks of 18 and 21 games, respectively, without a score — that was overshadowed by the four goals Tampa Bay gave up.
"You have to look at the big picture, and where we are in the standings, how important those points are," Callahan said. "We have to tighten up defensively. It's another game (where) we gave up four goals, where we've had our success where we're giving up one maybe two. We've got to be better defensively."
Paquette's goal tied the score after the Sharks had scored twice in a span of five minutes for a 2-1 lead. Tied to open the third period, Tampa Bay's defense had a breakdown right away, and Cooper called the go-ahead goal, by San Jose left wing Matt Nieto just 1:07 into the third, "inexcusable."
"We just don't give those up. It was way too easy," Cooper said. "We have guys who have been with us for a while out there on the ice. It's our job as coaches to straighten this out. Why they're (deviating) from what's worked for us is what we need to figure out."
San Jose put the game away with a goal with 1:43 left, as center Melker Karlsson beat Bishop for a two-goal lead as the Lightning tried to tie the score. Tampa Bay's efforts to force overtime weren't helped by two penalties in the final 11 minutes, creating power plays for San Jose.
Tampa Bay had lost just twice in its first 54 games when leading after the first and was 22-4 when scoring first, but lost despite both advantages. The Lightning killed off all three Sharks power plays, making it four straight games without allowing a power-play goal, but consistently gave up odd-man rushes for even-strength goals.
Callahan got the early lead, taking the puck directly in front of Sharks goalie Martin Jones, making a move to his right and firing the puck left past Jones for the goal and a 1-0 lead with 2:09 left in the period. After scoring four goals in the first 13 games of the season, he had just one in 41 games before Tuesday's score.
The Lightning closes a four-game, seven-day home stand on Thursday night against Winnipeg, opening a stretch of three games in four days. After hosting the Jets, six of Tampa Bay's next seven games are on the road.
"If we keep losing, you're not climbing in the standings, you're going the wrong way, and that's what we're doing right now," Cooper said. "I have a lot of faith in this group. If you go through 82 games, you're going to go through bumps in the road. … We need an inspired effort against Winnipeg."
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Callahan 6 (Killorn, Sustr), 17:51. Penalties—None.
Second Period—2, San Jose, Ward 16 (Vlasic, Nieto), 1:43. 3, San Jose, Pavelski 26 (Thornton, Hertl), 6:34. 4, Tampa Bay, Paquette 3 (J.Brown), 8:46. Penalties—Coburn, TB (interference), 15:39.
Third Period—5, San Jose, Nieto 8 (Marleau, Ward), 1:17. 6, San Jose, Karlsson 7 (Thornton), 18:17. Penalties—Donskoi, SJ (tripping), 2:00; Marchessault, TB (boarding), 9:13; Filppula, TB (tripping), 14:10; Hedman, TB, misconduct, 18:17; Ward, SJ (holding), 19:46. Shots on Goal—San Jose 8-10-13—31. Tampa Bay 9-12-9—30. Power-play opportunities—San Jose 0 of 3; Tampa Bay 0 of 2. Goalies—San Jose, Jones 27-15-3 (30 shots-28 saves). Tampa Bay, Bishop 22-17-3 (31-27). A—19,092 (19,092). T—2:22. Referees—Gord Dwyer, Jon McIsaac. Linesmen—David Brisebois, Brian Mach.