NEW YORK — Goalie Mike Smith sat in the Lightning locker room, his bowed head deep in his hands.
Tampa Bay lost 5-2 to the Rangers on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, and Smith took the blame, especially for the third goal in New York's four-goal second period that wiped out the Lightning's 2-0 first-period lead.
"The third one broke our backs," Smith said of Erik Christensen's in-close wrist shot that got through his legs.
"It's a goal that has to be stopped, a shot that has to be stopped, a point in the game you have to come up with big saves."
Smith allowed four goals on 10 shots in the period.
But there was plenty of blame to go around as Tampa Bay (26-24-11) lost its third straight, two on the road, to go into the Olympic break tied for ninth in the East, one point out of a playoff spot and severely deflated.
"There's none now," center Steven Stamkos said of the momentum of a 7-1-1 streak that on Tuesday had the Lightning in sixth place. "We're kind of looking forward to the break. Before, we didn't want it to end, the way we were playing."
How is Tampa Bay playing now?
That it allowed five goals in three straight games should give you a clue.
Smith looked bad on Sean Avery's penalty shot that made it 2-1 1:40 into the second period, and Vinny Prospal was unchallenged as he popped in a rebound at 6:07 to make it 2-2.
Defenseman Andrej Meszaros tripped over Prospal at the Rangers blue line to spark a two-on-one that ended with Christensen's goal that made it 4-2, and Marty St. Louis' ill-advised cross-ice pass was picked off by Chris Drury, who scored an empty-netter.
"Mental breakdowns, mental mistakes; we're beating ourselves," Stamkos said. "It's not like other teams are outplaying us or outshooting us. They're capitalizing on the chances we're giving them."
"It's frustrating," coach Rick Tocchet said. "When you're evaluating your team, pressure situations like that, you're looking for people to (step up)."
Such as Stamkos, who scored his team-best 35th goal and league-best 15th on the power play, and Steve Downie, who scored his 15th on a deflection.
But Vinny Lecavalier, without a point in five games and minus-7 in three, has disappeared, and Ryan Malone (zero goals in 11 games) and Alex Tanguay (one in 12) are not much better.
Even St. Louis was minus-3.
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist was stellar with 27 saves, and as Smith said, "At this time of year, your goalie has to be your best player. Lundqvist was their best player. It didn't happen at our end of the rink."
Not that he had much help.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 35 (Malone, Downie), 15:33 (pp). 2, Tampa Bay, Downie 15 (Stamkos, Tanguay), 17:03. Penalties—Konopka, TB, major (fighting), 5:18; Voros, NYR, major (fighting), 5:18; Tanguay, TB (holding stick), 7:23; Foster, TB (delay of game), 13:07; Christensen, NYR (tripping), 13:56; Walker, TB, major (fighting), 15:43; Prust, NYR, major (fighting), 15:43.
Second Period—3, N.Y. Rangers, Avery 7 (penalty shot), 1:40. 4, N.Y. Rangers, Prospal 14 (Staal, Christensen), 6:07. 5, N.Y. Rangers, Christensen 4 (Prospal, Rozsival), 12:06. 6, N.Y. Rangers, Christensen 5, 13:52. Penalties—Foster, TB (cross-checking), 4:43; Rozsival, NYR (boarding), 5:34; Lundin, TB (tripping), 15:56; Downie, TB (roughing), 20:00; Avery, NYR (roughing), 20:00.
Third Period—7, N.Y. Rangers, Drury 10, 19:45 (en). Penalties—Dubinsky, NYR (hooking), 2:01; St. Louis, TB (roughing), 17:07; Girardi, NYR (interference), 17:07. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 7-13-9—29. N.Y. Rangers 7-10-6—23. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 3; N.Y. Rangers 0 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Smith 10-14-6 (22 shots-18 saves). N.Y. Rangers, Lundqvist 25-22-6 (29-27). A—18,200 (18,200). T—2:32. Referees—Francois St. Laurent, Kerry Fraser. Linesmen—Derek Nansen, Brad Lazarowich.