NEW YORK — Give Lightning coach Rick Tocchet credit for keeping his sense of humor.
It was gallows humor, to be sure. But after Tuesday night's embarrassing 8-2 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, it was all that was left.
"The only thing we did right was the bus was on time to get us here," Tocchet said.
Ryan Malone also won a third-period fight by bloodying New York's Aaron Voros, but beyond that, "They outhit us, they outplayed us, they out-everythinged us, they outcoached us," Tocchet said. "Every facet of the game they outdid us. Their leaders outdid our leaders. Their goaltenders outgoaltended us."
So much so, a 10-minute, players-only meeting followed the game in which Tampa Bay (19-20-10) allowed season-high goals and tied its worst deficit of the season.
"The message was to look yourself in the mirror," defenseman Mattias Ohlund said. "Our season is now. It's not two weeks from now. We have a stretch of games coming up, we're either going to be in the hunt for the playoffs or we're going to set ourselves so far back, it's going to be awfully hard to get there."
The Lightning's 48 points are just four from the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot. But the team has yet to win three straight, and against an opponent also fighting for the postseason, it did not show up.
"We have guys who think they can play in a playoff-style atmosphere? Then we're in trouble," Tocchet said. "Guys were scared to have the puck. Guys were scared to make 12-foot passes, guys running around out of their position."
Give the Rangers credit. Eight players scored. They held the Lightning to 11 shots in the final two periods en route to a 31-23 advantage. They dominated puck battles and puck possession.
But blame Tampa Bay. The team is incredibly soft in front of the net, both on the puck and the body. Defensive positioning was atrocious on almost every Rangers goal with defensman Victor Hedman and Kurtis Foster each minus-3.
The pair was victimized on New York's most important goal, 72 seconds after Vinny Lecavalier's 13th cut the Rangers' lead to 2-1.
Foster was outmaneuvered in the defensive zone by Ryan Callahan, who got the puck to the net. Hedman batted the floating puck right to Chris Drury, who scored from the slot with 1:27 left to re-establish the two-goal lead.
"We need to see a lot better," Hedman said, "see where the puck is and where guys are and clean out in front of the net and let the goaltenders see the puck."
"It was just one of those nights when everything was going in," said New York's Marian Gaborik, who had four assists. "We deserved it."
And neither Lightning goalie — starter Antero Niittymaki, pulled for the second time in three games after allowing five goals on 20 shots, nor Dustin Tokarksi — deserved to be hung out to dry.
So, can the Lightning can go on a playoff run?
"I'm just worried about the next period," Tocchet said.
But not about the team bus to the airport.
"The driver," he said, "was the best thing we had."
First—1, N.Y. Rangers, Dubinsky 11 (Prospal, Gaborik), 1:26 (pp). 2, N.Y. Rangers, Prospal 9 (Gaborik, Staal), 7:05. 3, Tampa Bay, Lecavalier 13 (Downie), 17:21. 4, N.Y. Rangers, Drury 8 (Callahan, Christensen), 18:33. Penalties—Konopka, TB, major (fighting), :10; Voros, NYR, major (fighting), :10; Lecavalier, TB (interference), 1:18; Lisin, NYR (interference), 1:42.
Second—5, N.Y. Rangers, Girardi 5 (Gaborik, Del Zotto), 5:23. 6, N.Y. Rangers, Lisin 6 (Gilroy, Higgins), 15:39. 7, Tampa Bay, Tanguay 8 (Stamkos, St. Louis), 17:09 (pp). Penalties—Rozsival, NYR (slashing), 1:00; Drury, NYR (hooking), 5:52; Downie, TB (roughing), 7:30; Prospal, NYR (cross-checking), 16:50; Christensen, NYR (hooking), 16:50.
Third—8, N.Y. Rangers, Staal 5 (Dubinsky, Gaborik), 6:04. 9, N.Y. Rangers, Voros 1 (Boyle, Avery), 11:11 (pp). 10, N.Y. Rangers, Higgins 6 (Redden, Gilroy), 16:32. Penalties—Konopka, TB, minor-misconduct (holding), 10:46; Malone, TB, major (fighting), 14:28; Voros, NYR, major (fighting), 14:28; Halpern, TB, served by Bochenski, minor-major (roughing, fighting), 18:15; Dubinsky, NYR, major (fighting), 18:15. Shots—Tampa Bay 12-5-6—23. N.Y. Rangers 9-11-11—31. Power plays—Tampa Bay 1 of 5; N.Y. Rangers 2 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Niittymaki 9-9-4 (20 shots-15 saves), Tokarski (15:39 second, 11-8). N.Y. Rangers, Lundqvist 22-15-6 (23-21). A—18,200 (18,200). T—2:26.