TAMPA — What is it with the Lightning when it faces teams at the bottom of the standings?
Tampa Bay fell 5-2 to the Devils on Friday night at the St. Pete Times Forum — the Devils, who points-wise are by far the worst team in the league and who have beaten the Lightning two straight by a combined score of 11-5.
"I don't know if it's mentally we're not preparing as well as we are for the games against the better teams that are ahead of us or tied with us," center Steven Stamkos said.
"Not that Jersey is a bad team. They're really improved. But they are where they are in the standings, and we are where we are, so we have to come in confident we're going to win games."
Instead, the Lightning (26-14-5) allowed four first-period goals in part due to disastrous positioning decisions that gave New Jersey skaters clean breakouts and shooting lanes.
Add a rough outing from goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who allowed four goals on nine shots before being pulled with 4:06 left in the first, "and before you know it," Stamkos said, "we're behind the 8-ball."
That lament has been familiar during Lightning losses to statistically less-than-stellar teams.
Against the Devils, Panthers, Islanders, Flames and Oilers, who are a combined 77-112-23, Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay is 1-3-3.
Coach Guy Boucher agreed his team must play better against the lower echelon but added about the Devils, who Dec. 23 inserted legendary Jacques Lemaire as coach: "I don't consider them bottom end right now with Jacques coaching. They're totally transformed."
They got solid goaltending from Martin Brodeur, who made 20 saves, and took advantage of Tampa Bay mistakes, mostly forwards getting too deep in the offensive zone, which allowed New Jersey easier counterattacks. That helped the Devils score four unanswered goals in 7:55 of the first period, including one shorthanded by Travis Zajac, to take a 4-1 lead. Vinny Lecavalier and Simon Gagne were minus-3 in the period.
"We can't have those lapses," said defenseman Brett Clark, who perhaps gave Brian Rolston too much room on his goal that made it 2-1 9:19 into the first. "Every time we try to run-and-gun with a team, it bites us in the butt."
On the positive side, Stamkos tied Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby for the league lead with his 32nd goal, his first in seven games, on the power play. Marty St. Louis scored his 19th.
But Tampa Bay did just about everything wrong in the first period. That's dangerous against any team.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 32 (St. Louis, Lecavalier), 5:06 (pp). 2, New Jersey, Kovalchuk 11 (Zajac, Greene), 7:59. 3, New Jersey, Rolston 3 (Zubrus), 9:19. 4, New Jersey, Elias 10 (Greene, Rolston), 11:44. 5, New Jersey, Zajac 7 (White), 15:54 (sh). Penalties—White, NJ (high-sticking), 4:56; Corrente, NJ, major (fighting), 13:38; Downie, TB, major (fighting), 13:38; Pelley, NJ (high-sticking), 15:12.
Second Period—6, Tampa Bay, St. Louis 19 (Stamkos, Hedman), 14:55. Penalties—Arnott, NJ (high-sticking), 7:35.
Third Period—7, New Jersey, Kovalchuk 12, 13:40. Penalties—Ohlund, TB (high-sticking), :34. Shots on Goal—New Jersey 9-10-6—25. Tampa Bay 9-11-12—32. Power-play opportunities—New Jersey 0 of 1; Tampa Bay 1 of 3. Goalies—New Jersey, Brodeur 7-18-1 (32 shots-30 saves). Tampa Bay, Roloson 9-15-1 (9-5), Ellis (15:54 first, 16-15). A—18,736 (19,758).