MONTREAL — If the Lightning misses the playoffs, and that is increasingly likely, its embarrassing road record will be the cause.
With just nine wins and 23 points, Tampa Bay is the worst road team in the East, and Tuesday's 5-3 loss to the Canadiens at the Bell Centre reinforced that reality.
"It's alarming when you only have nine wins on the road," coach Rick Tocchet said.
What should really be alarming is the way this season is slipping away.
The Lightning (27-27-11) has lost six of seven and is 1-3-0 since the Olympic break, when all the talk was about a playoff push.
Instead, 11th in the conference and five points behind the Bruins for the final playoff spot with 17 games left, the team has been pushed to the brink.
"We're running out of time," center Steven Stamkos said. "We'd better put a streak together if we're going to have a chance."
Stamkos did his part.
His 41st goal was his team-record 17th on the power play and extended his team-record points streak to 17 games.
Marty St. Louis scored his 24th and Matt Walker got his first. Tampa Bay even had a 31-28 shot advantage with Vinny Lecavalier getting eight.
But that was offset by sloppy defense in front of the net and porous goaltending as Antero Niittymaki was pulled for the third time in five starts after allowing four goals on 21 shots 7:33 into the second period.
"It's probably pretty damaging," Stamkos said of the loss. "That's a team we're trying to catch."
Tampa Bay is 9-19-5 on the road and has been outscored 123-80. It is 18-8-6 at home.
"Good teams got to win on the road," Tocchet said. "You're put in certain situations and maybe you get tighter. But it's game 65. I know there's pressure to make the playoffs, there's pressure to win. Maybe that explains it, I don't know. But you have to have that road mentality."
"A lot of our road games we're on our heels," defenseman Mattias Ohlund said. "They came out strong and we sat back, and I don't want to say we panicked but a lot of times we gave our problems away instead of holding onto the puck an extra second."
Such as on Benoit Pouliot's goal 4:28 into the second, 41 seconds after Stamkos made it 2-1.
Victor Hedman gave up the puck in the defensive zone, and Pouliot was alone in front of the net because Mike Lundin went behind it, he said, to give Hedman a target at which to pass.
"This was the biggest game of the year, just like the one before it," left wing Todd Fedoruk said. "It only gets harder."
On a road trip that still has Toronto and Washington to go.
First Period—1, Montreal, Metropolit 15 (Gomez, Spacek), 2:50 (pp). 2, Montreal, Gomez 12, 12:02. Penalties—Tampa Bay bench, served by Fedoruk (too many men), 1:49.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 41, 3:47 (pp). 4, Montreal, Pouliot 16 (Gomez), 4:28. 5, Montreal, Darche 4 (Metropolit, Markov), 7:33. 6, Tampa Bay, Walker 1 (Parrish, Veilleux), 10:03. Penalties—O'Byrne, Mon (charging), 2:43; Maxwell, Mon (interference), 11:30; Hamrlik, Mon (cross-checking), 19:43.
Third Period—7, Montreal, Darche 5 (Plekanec, Markov), 3:26. 8, Tampa Bay, St. Louis 24 (Stamkos, Foster), 18:53. Penalties—Downie, TB (slashing), 1:19; Plekanec, Mon (slashing), 19:48. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 7-15-9—31. Montreal 10-8-10—28. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 4; Montreal 1 of 2. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 17-12-5 (13 shots-9 saves), Smith (7:33 second, 15-14). Montreal, Halak 20-10-2 (31-28). A—21,273 (21,273). T—2:26.